Oyster business thrives on Gay Island
Cushing — Barrett Lynde enjoys oysters plain, with a little lemon. "Light on the sauce," he added. Lynde and his mother, Tara, operate an oyster growing business on Gay Island.
"It's really been an adventure," said Lynde of the endeavor. His parents, Robert and Tara, started the operation in 2000 and the size and scale has increased each year since. The local oysters have earned recognition in Down East and Maine magazines, and regularly ships oysters across the country.
Lynde traveled back and forth to Maine while attending college in southern Vermont, helping to formulate the original business plan — it took a year for the family to retain the necessary permits to begin growing oysters.
Lynde said his father, who passed away five years ago from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, taught him a lot about the business. The rest he learned through practice — simply, "you make a mistake, and you don't make it again."
Working with his family has been special, and believes his dad would continue to have pride in the business, he said. Lynde's two sisters, nieces, nephews, and fiance, Sandra, contribute their talents when they can — even if it's just eating oysters during vacation for the little ones.
Lynde grows American east-coast oysters, which grow well in the cold Muscongus Bay waters between Cushing and Friendship. "The oysters retain different traits depending on the minerals in the water, the tide flow, and salinity," he explained. The Cushing oysters, benefiting from the ocean movement, develop a deeper cup and sweet, clean meat, he said.
Different areas have different techniques for raising oysters, he said, noting other oyster businesses in the state. "There are a lot of things you don't think of when starting out — it's a lot of learning."
The oysters spawn in mid-summer and are kept in warm tidal pools to achieve optimal spawning conditions. The baby oysters are spawned from mature Gay Island oysters, developing the unique characteristics of the local stock.
The baby oysters, which are the size of a pin head, are raised in the nearby Meduncook River — sheltered by geography, slower-moving water and tepid temperatures. They incubate for the summer before returning to the waters off Gay Island. The survival rate for Gay Island oysters is high, only 7 to 10 percent don't reach maturity.
The oysters are harvested by hand from about 150 crates that line the west edge of the island. Thousands of oysters are sold each year, often to local restaurants and residents. Lynde believes maintaining the connection with the local market is important and works to ensure the oysters are easily accessible. People can drive their boats to the Gay Island dock to pick-up oysters, have an order delivered, or pick up oysters at the parking lot of the dock just off Pleasant Point Road.
Sometimes Lynde will trade oysters for lobsters with fishermen that stop by. "We've been really lucky, people have been accepting," he said.
Oysters are filter feeders and are a fairly self-sufficient, non-finicky shellfish. "There's no talking to them to help them grow," said Lynde. They are, however, "put to bed" for the winter when the water temperature drops below 40 degrees and the oysters begin to go dormant for the season. The cages the oysters are raised in are dropped to the bottom of the ocean for protection.
This season, with the unusually warm water, the oysters grew about a half-inch. It takes three to four years for an oyster to mature to an edible size. Sometimes the period is longer for a runt — the unlucky one that isn't as competitive as others in the cage. The stocks are regularly checked to ensure overcrowding isn't an issue.
The ridges of the shell are indicators of age and the colors of the shell an indicator of the growing conditions.
Island life suits Lynde. "I like the seclusion, but it's not too far from town," he said. His family is one of the two year-round family inhabitants.
Lynde said once he's finished work for the day, he forgets about the small, hearty mollusks in the water. "When we go visit people, sometimes we forget to bring oysters," he admits.
For more information, visit gayislandoysters.com.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at Jlaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.