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Maine Month: Meet Snow Island Oysters

Peter, Donnie, Dave and Alec of Snow Island Oysters sit next to one another on the bow of their boat.

The thing about oyster farming is that everyone starts for different reasons.

Some people can’t get enough of how the taste, some inherited prime farming land, others studied their biology, and some are like the Quahog Bay Conservancy. Founded by Pat and Mary Scanlan in 2014, the conservancy’s mission is to revitalize the ecosystem of Quahog Bay to a robust and resilient state. One of their initiatives? Growing oysters. Aquaculture was a natural fit for the QBC’s efforts. 100% of the proceeds of Snow Island Oysters go back into funding the Conservancy’s efforts to clean the bay. And not only that, but oysters are filter feeders meaning they actually help to improve water quality throughout their lifespan. So, just by eating Snow Island Oysters, you’re helping Maine stay beautiful!

We visited their farm on a chilly Wednesday morning to take a look at where it all goes down. 20 nautical miles north up the coast from Portland, ME, Snow Island sits smack dab in the middle of Quahog Bay. Lead by Dave Hunter, we joined him and 3 of his crew members (Dave, Donnie, Peter and Alec) and hopped on their workboat. After a nippy 10 min ride (Maine is struggling hard to make it to spring), we came closer to what appeared to be a nearly untouched island, except for a miniature light house sitting at the very tip with a sign that read ‘Snow Island’.

Head of Operations, Dave Hunter (pictured above) – also a full time firefighter up in Brunswick – was a pretty quiet guy at first. In fact, they all appeared to be humble Mainers at first impression. But it wasn’t long before they warmed up (only figuratively…it was still really damn cold) and you could quickly see the familial connection between them that is universal in the oyster farming world. A connection that is usually fostered by bearing the often unpredictable New England weather together, while stuck for extended periods of time on a rather small boat. Something we *totally* understand.

“Which one of you is the jokester?” Peter pointed at Alec, just as Alec pointed right back.

The crew showed us one of the areas in which they farm, just east of the island. They grabbed a floating oyster cage from the water, pulled out a bag, and showed off their babies. Dave made a few attempts at perfectly shucking an oyster for us to try. He may be a great farmer, but as he said “I’m not a professional shucker.” (Maybe we’ll get him down to Duxbury one of these days for a friendly competition to sharpen those skills.)

How they’re grown:

Quahog Bay Conservancy, like many small local oyster farm operations, buys their seed from Tonie Simmons, just 30 miles north as the crow flies, at the Muscongus Bay Aquaculture hatchery (you’ll meet her next week!). These tiny baby oysters (known as seed) are nurseried in upwellers until being planted in floating mesh bags at about 1⁄2” in size. They will spend their lives there, floating in the clean cold water that surrounds Snow Island until being harvested after 2-3 years.

How they taste:

High salinity, with lots of grassy, earthy undertones. Perfect for a post-breakfast, pre-lunch snack.

After trying a few fresh Snow Islands, we pulled away from the farm area, continued north until we headed west, and eventually back down south, circling the island in full. As we headed around, Peter (pictured above) – a retired Chief Warrant Officer of the U.S. Coast Guard – pointed out a bald eagle perched in its nest who has made Snow Island home. It’s being amongst the wildlife, along with quiet summer mornings when the water becomes glasslike, that keep these guys going.

This year the Quahog Bay Conservancy bought 300,000 oyster seed to plant with plans to grow up to a million oysters in the coming years. This crew has big plans to expand, all in the name of restoring and conserving the beauty of Quahog Bay.