Free oysters? Well, not quite, but they’re pretty cheap if you’ve got a municipal shellfish license – and you’re willing to supply a bit of labor over Labor Day weekend.

The Town of Brunswick has been experimenting with growing oysters at the Mere Point and Simpson’s Point boat launches over the last few years, and now they are opening up these sites for public harvesting over the long weekend. The goal is to help people understand a bit more about oyster aquaculture and also to let them taste the value of it.

To participate in the harvest, you do need a recreational shellfish license if you’re over 10 years old, but it costs just $50 and is good from now until the end of April 2018. A recreational license allows you to collect a peck (about a two gallon bucket) of shellfish per day from any public shellfish area in your municipality and can be purchased at the Town Clerk’s office.

So, why did the town “plant” 12,000 oysters at these public sites a few years ago?

It started back in 2012 when the soft shell clam industry nearly collapsed due to record numbers of invasive green crabs, a major predator of shellfish. As a result, Brunswick’s Marine Resources Committee began working on ways to augment and enhance its natural shellfish populations. One of these projects has focused on oysters, which are a particularly valuable species as they can sell for up to $2 to $3 apiece.

American oysters, Crassostrea virginica, are native to Maine, and have been harvested in the state for hundreds of years. But about 50 years ago, the wild stock experienced a major decline due to disease, habitat loss, over harvesting, and poor water quality. Harvests of wild oysters are now less than 1 percent of historic levels.

Recently, some people have seen this decline as an opportunity and have begun trying to cultivate oysters to supplement the wild population. Oyster farmers along the coast grow both American, as well as European or flat oysters, Ostrea edulis, in bags and cages that help protect them from predators. As a mark of their success, Maine’s oyster harvest is now valued at $24 million dollars.

Oyster aquaculture can be done on a small scale to supplement other fishing or harvesting for those working on the waterfront. It offers fishermen a way to diversify their efforts in the case that we experience another major shellfish decline or other significant decreases in other harvested species. And, it doesn’t take up a lot of space or require massive amounts of capital to get started; many people along the coast have been able to try it out on a small scale.

Several towns, like Brunswick, have been trying it out on a municipal scale, as well. Brunswick’s experimental project has been collaborative from the beginning. About three years ago, a group of residents, shell fishermen and members of the MRC spent many hours setting out thousands of oysters in cages and bags. After several growing seasons, they are now ready for market. The town plans to release them at these two sites about a week before the public harvest.

Since the project began, interest in aquaculture has increased in the area. There are 34 new Limited Permits for Aquaculture and two experimental leases in and around Brunswick.

As Brunswick’s Marine Warden Dan Devereaux puts it, “I would consider that a success and a kick start to what is to come in terms of providing a more sustainable and consistent shellfish industry.”

Aquaculture not only provides new economic opportunities for shellfish harvesters and other entrepreneurs, but it also has the benefit of helping to reseed the wild population through the spawn released from the lease areas. In addition, oysters are amazing water filters and can filter up to 50 gallons per day, improving water quality and clarity for a variety of marine plant and animal life.

You can read more about many of these benefits at the poster displayed at the Mere Point boat launch, which was created by Sea Grant and Brunswick High School students as a part of their own shellfish seeding project at the head of Maquoit Bay – another of the town’s efforts.

Once you’ve got your license, or if you’re under the age of 10, come out to the Mere Point or the Simpson’s Point boat launches starting at noon on Sept. 1 and continuing until noon Sept. 4. If you have questions, please contact Brunswick Marine Resources at 721-4312.

And, don’t forget your bucket!