MIDCOAST — This is a great time of year to get out on the trails. And what better kind of trail than one where you eat? That’s exactly what you’ll do if you follow Maine’s Oyster Trail.

You can visit a lot of neat places along the coast where restaurants and retailers are serving these juicy, succulent shellfish. And you might even learn something about oysters and how farmers are growing them in Maine’s cool, clear waters.

This is all part of an effort to help promote Maine oysters as a healthy form of aquaculture that can enhance economic opportunities and environmental health of the waters along our coast.

The Maine Oyster Trail is the result of the combined efforts of a bunch of great organizations and institutions including Maine Sea Grant, University of Maine Extension, Maine Aquaculture Association, Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center, and In a Half Shell, along with the Maine Office of Tourism.

The Trail was first launched in 2017 and represented 30 farms. Now, it includes more than 50 restaurants that serve oysters from over 70 farms.

Because of my background in marine science, my friends and family often ask me what seafood is the best to pick in terms of supporting the local economy and being sustainable. The answer is not simple – except for shellfish.

Shellfish are like the super heroes of the sea. They have amazing powers to improve their environment as they grow by filtering out the water and turning it into delicious protein. That leaves the water cleaner and clearer for other species like eelgrass, which in turn provides critical habitat for juvenile fish, crabs and other shellfish.

The thing about oysters, however, is that there aren’t very many of them. The American oyster, Crassostrea virginica, is native to Maine and there used to be heaps of them, literally. You can find the shell middens of the native Wabanaki people, who ate them in great numbers. But, in the 1970s oyster populations plummeted due to poor water quality and environmental conditions.

Now, shellfish farmers are helping to bring them back.

It starts at the hatcheries where oysters are spawned to produce seed, tiny oysters that can then be purchased by shellfish farmers to start their farms. The seed can then grow in a couple of different ways. It can be put into plastic mesh bags or cages that float on the surface or can dangle in cages from floats on the surface. With tending, sorting and good clean water, the oysters are large enough to be harvested in about two years.

While you might be concerned about aquaculture in the open ocean, oyster aquaculture actually has positive impacts on its environment, providing not only filtration capacity, but also new surface area for other animals to settle in and grow.

In addition, many of the farmed oysters reproduce, introducing seed to replenish the wild population. These wild oysters will then be harvestable to local fishermen. All of these efforts are small-scale and local, with small area leases given to growers who tend them close to where they live, thus supporting Midcoast’s working waterfront communities.

What started as a small effort to reintroduce the native oyster has turned into a major industry. Oysters are now a $5 million industry. More than 70 farms in Maine from the Piscataqua River to Taunton Bay produce over 2 million pounds of oysters each year.

Each has its own specific taste, as they are a reflection of the waters they come from. A small difference in temperature or salinity can change their taste, as can the specific mixture of plankton in the water that they filter.

Take Spinney Creek’s oysters from the Piscataqua that are described as being very briny and finished with a pleasant sea plant taste.

Or, take one of Maine’s northernmost oysters from Taunton Bay. These grow near the famous reversing falls there, which are described as having a buttery, chardonnay-like balanced brininess. Oyster flavors are a bit like our coastal culture, which is unique to each nook and cranny.

If all of this is interesting, but you aren’t a big oyster fan, you can still follow the trail to learn more about oysters and aquaculture. You could opt for an aquaculture tour with Damariscotta River Cruises to see where oysters are grown.

Midcoast Kayak has tours of local farms, as well. Nonesuch Oyster Company also offers tours of its nursery and farming sites in the Scarborough River.

Or you can see baby oyster seed in Basket Island Oyster’s upwellers, as well as view their sorting raft where you’ll see how they clean and sort their oysters at their Casco Bay farm.

All of these tours offer an optional tasting. Or, closer to home, you can visit the Saturday Brunswick Farmer’s Market at Crystal Spring Farm to try some locally-grown oysters from Mere Point Oyster Company.

If you haven’t been an oyster lover in the past, I’d suggest giving them another try. Most recently, I put them on the grill. They popped right open and were lightly steamed, eliminating the somewhat slithery texture that puts some people off and the tricky business of shucking them.

Whatever your taste, the Maine Oyster Trail is a neat way to explore the coast this summer. You can find more information and a map of the trail at www.seagrant.umaine.edu/maine-oyster-trail.

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