Swan's Island Vacations

Rentals on a Maine Island

Swan's Island Aquaculture: Oysters on the Small Scale


Tall and thin, and now dressed in a wet suit, Robert Horton looks like his favorite candy, licorice. That morning he waded into the waters of Mackerel Cove to retrieve a cage of oysters, now entering their second year. From the shore, there is no evidence of the 52 cages moored below the surface. In each unit there are approximately 1,000 oysters that he bought as spat from Bill Mook's hatchery on the Damariscotta River. Now sitting on the deck, he sorts through the tiny shellfish, separating wild mussels from his prizes.

Horton moved to Swan's Island's Island Retreat area, where he became the only year-round resident, during the winter of 1987. His house above the beautiful ledges of Mackerel Cove, reflects his temper and taste. His experience in setting up United Nations-sponsored fish farms in South and Central America, Africa, and in many developing nations around the world, led him to look at the Belon oyster industry in the United States. He thought it would be an interesting concept that could lead to "Morn and Pop" grow-out operations.


"10 years ago," he says,"the Amoco Cadiz oil spill off the coast of France, caused an algae bloom which someone tried to eliminate with an algaecide. That wiped out the Belon oyster. The Belon is the Queen of Oysters. They haven't been able to raise them in that area on a large scale ever since. Oysters from Siberia are now grown there, but are not the same quality as the Belon. Before the oil spill, the Belon was introduced in Harpswell, Maine. It was thought that they wouldn't breed, but they did and these can be found in the wild as far as Cranberry Island."


Horton says that his concept is twofold. Raising oysters commercially with leases from the State, there is a potential of making $35,000.00 a year, and he would have an accessible food supply. Secondly, his idea is to make cages of 2 year old oysters available for anyone to grow themselves. "It would be a good job for women. It is low-tech, you don't need a boat and the cages only weigh 35 lbs."


At the turn of the century, oysters were very popular and were consumed on a large scale in America. Every bar had an oyster bar. Pollution reduced the oyster harvest greatly in this country, but in the 80's, so many new markets opened up every year, that made it an exciting challenge for entrepreneurial types, like Horton, who have braved the new world of aquaculture. Though he grants that oysters are still, "A rich man's crop," he feels that oysters would make a good replacement for the standard American hors d'oeuvre, shrimp, which are now imported and very expensive.


The Belon oyster grows below the low tide mark and that puts them in leasable State lands. Unlike the problem of growing clams directly on the flats, where anyone can dig them if the flats are not protected, oysters are grown out in cages. Cultured oysters may be harvested and sold at any time of the year and with the advent of refrigerated mail and mail-order, oyster farming could have a wonderful future. Horton also likes the idea of growing oysters, because oysters were a wild species in Maine and he feels that there are many areas around Swan's Island that would make nice oyster beds, as they may have been in the past.


In the meantime, he culls his baby bivalve mollusks, cage by cage, and envisions what could be, if the mussels and clams which sometimes take up residence, would just leave his project be...but Horton has plans for the clams too: wouldn't it be! great to grow out the ones that get caught amongst the oysters, in their own cages? Another winter is fast coming on, and there will be time enough to make some plans! August, 1989



Salmon Run


At the end of July I rode the ferry that delivered the last salmon smolt to their watery beds off of Gooseberry Island. For several days Mariculure had been transporting smolt from their Bingham hatchery and anyone who wanted to take a special trip, could do so for free.


The truck, with its special fiberglass tanks, made the three hour trip and arrived for the last scheduled trip to the island. After discharging the few vehicles that were able to squeeze on with the extra long flat bed which took up almost the entire center of the boat, the ferry got underway for the trip around the north of Swan's Island.


At 6 PM, the ferry was deserted save, for we two, three Mariculture personal and ferry crew. A thick fog quickly enveloped our journey which we imagined would have been beautiful. We passed one large yacht under motor bound for safe haven in Mackerel Cove I hoped, for the going was indeed blind. The captain slowed at some distance, we were told, from the pens, and gave a long loud blast on the horn. We slowly proceeded and then suddenly, the hallooing of the island crew pierced the fog. As if in a dream, the scene materialized before us in the dimming light.


The Pegasus, Steve Wheaton's boat, was tied up on the opposite side from the arrangement of tires roped to the metal pen so that the ferry could dock. Quickly, the men went about the business of releasing about 20,000 fish. Hoses were fastened, a little pump was started, water cascaded over the decks and finally, the little fish appeared down the other end of a long hose that was steadied by two men who held up the end with ropes. A few of the 6" fish began to sort of dance just at the surface. With their noses slightly higher, they darted about the pen and flashed just below the surface. In a matter of minutes, the job was done, gear secured, envelopes passed, farewells said, and we were parted.


The ferry headed back. On and on into the total darkness of the fog and night, while my friend worked on a painting he had sketched while the salmon were being transferred and I read. At Bass Harbor, the ferry crew waited a moment to see if anyone would take advantage of the late trip, but when no one came down, we headed home. By ten o'clock we had completed our trip and felt satisfied that we had done something special. August, 1989



Salmon Woes


It is January 3, 1990. The dead salmon are a shocking sight. Many of the two pound fish have, incredibly, worn away their snouts to the bone and some have lost an eye. One salmon had worn away his operculum or gillcover on one side. There are large areas on the bodies where scales have come off. On some there are patches where the skin has worn away so that one can see the pattern of the flesh as if it had already been poached and presented to you for supper. There are 10 totes of dead and dying salmon aboard the boat this morning and there are more from the day before in the old bait house on Kent's Wharf which is being rented by Mariculture for the winter. Most of these will be sent over to the Fisherman's Coop to be used as lobster bait and a few of the better looking ones will be given away. It seems bitterly ironic that we are relishing a beautifully warm day by pulling chairs out onto the dock to discuss the possibility that the salmon have been dying partly due to the effects of cold.


Henrik Hoem, a marine biologist ho works for Agersoe Haubrug in Denmark which raises rainbow trout, arrived on Swan's Island at the end of December. He was hired to act as an advisor on the management of the Mariculture salon project. Mr. Hoem has worked in aquaculture for six years and has never seen or heard such a problem. His company harvests all their fish in December and again in April. (Agersoe Haubrug harvested 550 tons in 1989.) Mr. Hoem is puzzled by the horrible condition of the fish and has no solution so far.


Mr. Hoem noted that salmon do not feed when the temperatures are low. In the wild the fish go to deeper levels when the water temperature drops. (Mariculture's application for an aquaculture lease on the Toothacher Cove site stated that there were "ideal water depths". The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initially delayed the placement of the pens in Toothacher Cove because they questioned that the proper depths were available on the site.) Parker Waite, a Mariculture manager, said that he thought that the problems were related to the cold water temperatures. He said that water temperatures dropped dramatically, nine degrees centigrade, in a month and a half and that divers have seen the fish schooling on the bottom of the nets.


Tests performed at the University of Maine have shown no disease. Mariculture has been trying to determine a probable cause. Some within the company feel that delays are a major factor. The fish were not put into the water until well past the time that was optimum and then they were put into a temporary site from which they were moved to the permanent site in Toothacher Cove. The move was followed by storms and extraordinarily cold water temperatures which caused the fish not to eat and hampered prompt maintenance of the nets. By the time nets could be changed, according to Mariculture foreman Jerry Smith, the work had to be done in bad weather and the nets were extremely fouled with mussels. Mr. Smith speculates that the fish couldn't see the new nets. Divers have watched as the fish repeatedly swim into the nets. Some of the pens have fish in better condition than others, though Mr. Smith noted that fish in pen number six, which had its net changed two weeks ago, had shown signs of stress the morning of January 3. Parker Waite said that the other pens had also showed signs of stress two weeks after nets had been changed.


The temperatures of early January have moderated, but it is already too late to help the sick salmon in the cove. Mariculture does not expect lose all the fish, but has conceded that their enterprise on Swan's Island has had a very bad start. On January 5, divers began the job of removing dead fish from the bottom of the nets... anyone who sees the battered bodies of the salmon can only hope that someone finds a solution soon.


Salmon note: Parker Waite tells me that the commercial death of a salmon should be painless. The fish are put into ice water that has carbon dioxide pumped into it. This anesthetizes them and one gill is cut so that they bleed to death. Waite says that the fish do not thrash about during this process. Gravalax any-one? January, 1990



Salmon Update


The rate of salmon loss has diminished since January, according to Parker Walte of Mariculture Products Lt. However, the company will not know the full extent of its loss until March. Mr. Waite believes the deaths were due to the stress of moving from Elingham to Swan's Island and the water temperatures in November. He feels that they may still see the effects until May and June.


Foreman Jerry Smith said that some of the injured fish are now eating. Mr. Waite said that In addition, the fish were schooling normally. He also noted that the water temperature was still a cold one degree centigrade. 60,000 salmon, the brothers and sisters of the fish now in Toothacher Cove were kept at the Bingham hatchery for the winter: these will be placed in new pens between April and June.


In the meantime, dead salmon are still being culled from the pens, but this is being done on a weekly rather than daily basis. Mariculture Products is apparently not discouraged. The firm is pursuing two other lease sites: one at Frenchboro and the other between Harbor and Scrag Islands. Mr. Walte says that the company feels that three sites will be needed for the 675,000 salmon they hope to raise profitably In the waters of Swan's Island. February, 1990



Mariculture Pens Wild Salmon in Harbor


Mariculture Products Ltd. has a small number of wild Atlantic salmon in a transfer pen in Burnt Coat Harbor that were acquired through the Atlantic Sea Run Salmon Commission and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The 85 salmon are the survivors of a capture and stripping operation that was accomplished in the spring of 1989 in the Penobscot and Union Rivers. Surplus wild salmon are given to the private sector in hopes that the fish will recondition and enter another reproductive cycle; such fish are used in a program that is studying the effect of "cultured" escapees on the wild salmon population.


The captured salmon virtually have not eaten since last May. They have absorbed ovaries, testes and body fat to carry them through. The Swan's Island workers note that the fish are as skinny as eels now, but that they have been able to get a few eating a little. The complicated cycle of the Atlantic salmon has been studied in depth, but scientists still have much to learn and a small piece of the puzzle is being worked out here in the harbor. April, 1990



Swan's Island Salmon on the Market


After working long and hard for two years, suffering the loss of thousands of fish last winter, and steering through a maze of regulations and open controversy as to the environmental safety of the project, Mariculture Products Ltd. is now in Its second month of salmon harvesting. The company's impressive shipping box has the headline, "Swan's Island" marked in large letters.


The salmon are shipped iced in the boxes to markets all across the eastern states. You can also find It in the fish department In Doug's Shop 'n Save in Ellsworth, where it competes well with other types of salmon. Processing will continue until the end of January at which time Mariculture will review the feasibility of their operation on Swan's Island.


Mariculture has erected a "temporary" storage building, 24'x30', at the town wharf from which it is renting space: the building replaces the truck trailers that had been used there and were objected to by neighbors. (The company originally had planned to build a quonset hut alongside the Electric Cooperative's office, but abutters objected to the style.)


A net washer, which looks like a turbine from a hydroelectric plant is now sitting on a concrete pad measuring l5'xl5', this being located near the head and to the right of the ramp to the public float. Mariculture now has a very large and complicated operation going and employs some 20 Swan's Islanders as well as some people from Frenchboro as well as from off Island. Working on and near the ocean is a difficult job: early hours in freezing conditions in all weather stretch into late, dark hours ... It is worse for the salmon, of course, but best for the one who loves to eat them! December, 1990



Swan's Island Clam Committee Digs In


Swans Island resident Leslie Ranquist boldly stepped forward at this year's March town meeting and asked the town to support the island clammers who felt that the time had come to seriously look into improving the clam industry on Swan's Island. Mr. Ranquist asked that $1,000 be raised and the voters concurred. The island clam ordinance stipulates that the town must raise monies for "Clam Conservation" at town meeting. In years past, monies from local, recreational and nonresident clam licenses were added to the funds raised at town meeting and used for testing and sampling and some enforcement. Flats were monitored and closed if necessary. This year's $1000 added to last year's balance of $954.42, plus this year's license fees do not add to a large sum but the commitment of the committee that has been ongoing since March has been considerable.


The clammers were joined by interested citizens who brought together a trio of Maine's experts on the subject of clams to talk with the group. Peter Moore of the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center at the University of Maine, Bill Mook of Mook Sea Farm Inc. from Damariscotta, and Brian Beal from the Beals Island Regional Shellfish Hatchery arrived early on May 9th and began the day with Introductions and slides on their work. After lunch, a quick sampling was taken around the Island by the excited group. At one point, Brian Beal took the clam hoe from Kevin Staples and dug in a ferment of bliss. The experts ended the day with the distinct impression that Swan's Island would be an ideal nursery for a program of privately leased clam flats.


On May 23, the Clam Committee sponsored a public hearing at the Odd Fellow's Hall. Brian Beal showed a slide presentation that explained the hatchery at Beals Island and illustrated the life cycle of the clam, Mya arenaria. Armed with the information about the clam and the leasing idea. It was hoped that the public would ask the selectmen to support the work of the committee. Shoreland owners, selectmen and others were present for the discussion.


Mya arenaria starts life sometime between June and September when the eggs and sperm are produced by the billons and billions (and billions) by the male and females. The eggs are fertilized almost immediately and within hours develop into larvae which then spend a few weeks drifting and eating. They then grow a swimming organ but are still subject to the whim of the sea. Mya arenaria transforms in many ways and then grows a shell. It is still only microscopic when it has acquired most of the organs like an adult. The clam's swimming organ degenerates and now goes to the bottom to crawl with its foot. For sometime, the young clam walks the flats, attaching itself by mean of a byssus, or thread, and then detaching and moving on If it so desires looking for a good place to live. If she finds a spot to settle down and she has chosen well, say at mid-tide in a sandy area and has plenty to eat, she will get to be two inches in three years.


Of course nature and man are working against her success. The green crab. birds, fish and diseases, like "water belly", take a great number of clams. The harvesting practices of diggers also contribute to a large mortality rate. The clam hoe breaks many and those clams that are too small and that are left in the wake of the clammer in the windrows of mud, rarely survive. Simply walking in the flats when the young are settling kills millions. Changes in salinity, erosion and the action of ice on the flats also takes its toll.


Meanwhile, Swan's Island clammers are also transforming. Committee members spoke about the need for diversification of the fishing industry on island.

Ranquist has said that he himself didn't particularly like to lobster, but rather felt more independent and wanted to try something different. The potential to make a good living is there. "If we don't pull it off, someone else will," Ranquist said. They spoke about how incentive was the key to the success of the labor intensive work of seeding and protecting flats: they recognized that the programs in some towns down east that tried to seed their flats as a collective and volunteer effort had failed because of the lack of incentive for the individual.


The clam resource has been considered a public one since Colonial days. A shoreland owner owns to the low-water mark but he does not own the resources within it. (The shoreland owner may not, however, restrict access to his flats from the water.) The state has given the selectmen, not the town, the authority over these areas. The state does have some authority also over leasing municipal flats, so the clammer must have state, selectmen and owner support for his lease site to work.


The owners of the shoreland would have to give the clammers permission to use the flats for cultivation, but the lease-holder would then own the clams he is cultivating. He will have his work cut out for him. Natural predators and natural forces will be his constant worry. Lease areas will be legally defined and mapped so that no one may claim ignorance, so in theory, another digger may not dig on his site. All license holders will be given maps showing these areas, and the information will be published in local newspapers.


After a lively discussion and an interesting question and answer period, the committee asked for a show of hands of those present if they would ask the selectmen to support the committee. All agreed and the selectmen were so informed. The 1908 idea of the cultivation of clams being in the hands of the workers themselves had floated free once again. Let us hope that in another 83 years it will have been well established that the clammers of Swan's Island pull off a great old idea. June,1991



Island fishermen protest salmon farm expansion plans


Concerns about the expansion of a salmon farm spurred 75 people to attend a meeting here last Thursday. The concerns also prompted a petition signed by 100 fishermen and area residents. It said the farm's owner, Mariculture Products Ltd., needed to make a "further investigation, assessment of community support." The petition named five objections to the farm expansion. It said territorial lobster and scallop fishing grounds were being lost and that navigation was being obstructed in more than one area. The petition also alleged that the Department of Marine Resources was not monitoring the farm's salmon pens; the fishermen questioned the pen's environmental impact.

They also complained that Mariculture Products was using town facilities and money for its own gain.


Finally, the fishermen charged that fishing gear was being lost because Mariculture Products used non-caged propellers on several vessels.


A spokesman for the company responded to the concerns at the June 20 meeting.


Mariculture Products placed salmon pens in Toothacher Cove in the fall of 1989 and recently began operations on a new site at Frenchboro. Another site between Harbor Island and Scrag Island is under development When fishermen recently found that Mariculture had designs on a large site at Marshall Island, they began to protest, saying they were losing fishing grounds.


At Thursday's meeting, Gary Arnold, Mariculture's vice president for corporate development, said the company had done more than any other to work with the people. The company kept open channels of communication with the local fishermen's cooperative, he said.


Arnold was told, however, that the cooperative did not speak for the majority of the island's citizens, only for itself, and that there was little communication within the co-op.

Arnold acknowledged that. He remarked that he had been surprised by the close vote last year to allow the company to build a fish plant in Minturn at the Quarry Wharf. The proposal passed by one vote. The company did not pursue the plan.


Swans Island is in the process of using a Community Development Block Grant to rebuild the Quarry Wharf and to build a fish-processing plant that the fishermen's cooperative will rent to Mariculture Products. Some townspeople, however, question whether the town should go that far for a company that, they say, represents a few paychecks and a little tax revenue. Selectman Sonny Sprague said Mariculture rents two spaces at the Quarry Wharf for $200 a year. The company also leases an area on the wharf for $300 a month. The salmon pens are assessed for tax purposes at $10,000. Last year, the company paid a total of $2,196 in taxes.


Of concern to a greater number of people was the company's encroachment into fishing waters. Swans Island fishermen have given themselves boundaries for their trap limit program. Marshall Island, to which Mariculture hopes to expand, has prime fishing bottom, but fishermen avoid it because it is within their self-imposed trap limit area. A few fishermen lost areas in Toothacher Cove and Scrag Island to the salmon pens, and the potential loss of 30 acres at Marshall Island raised some loud protests.

The Thomas Lunt family, who owns part of Marshall Island, was particularly upset with Mariculture's proposal. Other people asked why the selection process could not begin by asking fishermen and riparian owners before an application was submitted to the Department of Marine Resources for a lease.


Arnold said Mariculture proposes to raise some one million fish. For that, he said, the company will need four sites. He said Mariculture evaluated locations around Swans Island and came up with Marshall Island. Arnold said the company submitted its application thinking it would not be acted on until 1992. That would give the company time to inform the public, he said. Other companies, however, withdrew their applications for leases around Maine waters, so Mariculture's moved up to second on the state list. The lease site application process includes public hearings. People at Thursday's informational meeting said Mariculture could have saved itself time by asking the public for comments before applying for the lease.


On the issue of navigation. Arnold said buoys had been placed with the help of island fishermen. One fisherman noted that Mariculture had switched to using a different channel on the citizens band radio. He asked that it return to channel 68 so fishermen would know what the company was doing. Fishermen said that if the company had set routes for its boats, they would place their gear accordingly.


Addressing questions about environmental testing, Arnold said Mariculture's operation has been tested more than any other site in the slate. He said the company will take part in a two-year study to measure the effects of salmon aquaculture on the environment. The Bangor Times, June, 1991