What are those black things floating out there? From a distance, I could see five black floats between two white buoys across the water. So we took our boat to check things out. There were wire cages on top of each of the floats – fairly wide but shallow squares.

But, there was nothing in them. I was puzzled by this arrangement and wondered if I was missing something. In the next couple of days, I saw several other boats head out to investigate, as well. I guessed they must be oyster cages, but it seemed strange that they would be up above the water since oysters thrive by filtering it. And, they were empty.

There are several other floats around Mere Point, where I live, and I’m familiar with seeing them with bags that hang down into the water. I’ve written before about oysters growing at the boat launch, as well as Paul’s Marina. The baby oysters are in mesh bags that dangle down from floats.

Public oyster floats at Mere Point boat launch in Brunswick. Photo by Susan Olcott

But, the cages on top of the floats were puzzling. So, I gave Dan Devereaux, Brunswick’s Marine Warden, a call. I learned that the cages are, in fact, for oysters, but they are essentially upside-down at the moment. It’s a pretty neat set-up. The cages sit on top of the floats when you want to access them. This might be to clean the cages when other things grow on them or to sort them as they grow. Or, to add baby oysters to them – which explains why these cages were empty.

Likely by the time this article goes to press, they will be filled with thousands of seed oysters from a Muscongus Bay hatchery. Then, they’ll flip the float over so that the oysters will be under the water while they grow and all you’ll see are the floats, a more familiar site.

That answered the biggest question of what we were looking at, but you might also wonder how they got there. This is one of a number of Limited Permits for Aquaculture around Mere Point. The Maine Department of Marine Resources issues these to individuals interested in trying out various types of aquaculture. They are limited to 400 square feet and you can have up to four per individual. It doesn’t allow you to grow a ton of anything, but it gives people the ability to test things out in a particular location with a particular species to see if it is successful potentially for a larger operation in the future.

You can use an LPA to grow any number of species from seaweed to mussels to scallops and soft shell clams. You can learn more about these at www.maine.gov/dmr/aquaculture.

The particular buoys I had noticed belong to Doug Niven of Mere Point Oyster Company. In total, his family holds 12 LPAs around Mere Point. There are several others around the other side of the point owned both publicly and privately.

The town has oysters at the boat launch and Paul’s Marina has some off their docks, with additional privately owned floats across the cove. And there are another couple of floats off Simpson’s Point for oysters and also quahog clams. In addition to the operations on Mere Point, there are a number of LPAs in the New Meadows River, an area that holds great potential for aquaculture.

There are a number of benefits these LPAs offer. The first is a new economic opportunity for fishermen or people living in waterfront communities. Any ability to diversify harvested species is positive, as other opportunities such as ground fishing have become limited and require a much larger investment. The biggest hurdle for shellfish aquaculture is that you have to wait 15 to 18 months from seed to harvestable size. The growth rate can vary quite a bit based on water temperature and nutrient levels.

The second is that shellfish are amazing water filters and help improve the water quality where they live. A mature oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of seawater each day. In addition, the calcium in their shells can help to buffer the effects of acidic ocean water.

As Dan Devereaux says, “Aquaculture is a responsible way to create a working waterfront that is environmentally conscious and has benefits for the quality of our water.” He has been involved in shellfish aquaculture both for the town and privately.

By his count, there are about 15,000 public oysters at the boat launch and 300,000 oysters in private sites around Mere Point. That’s a lot of oysters filtering a lot of water. You can read more about these benefits both at the boat launch and at Paul’s Marina on the posters created by the Brunswick High School students who are doing their own aquaculture experiments at the head of Maquoit Bay.

Finally, these LPAs aren’t just experiments; they produce edible protein. If you’re interested in trying some, you can taste them at the Montsweag Roadhouse, which exclusively offers Mere Point oysters, or you can be in touch with Doug Niven directly.

So, next time you see these buoys, likely flipped back over, think of all those baby oysters under the water growing fat and delicious by helping clean up our bays.