The Story of Otter Cove Farms, Damariscotta River, ME
Otter Cove is one of my favorite stories yet. You're going to get tingles (and a couple biology lessons) from Pete and Brian's passion for ecology. I interviewed Pete Smith, "The Farming Guru". This is Otter Cove's story.
Where it All Began
Pete: We started up the company in 2014. Brian Mozeleski (our Biologist) is my oldest childhood friend. We grew up together. He pursued his academic career and did a lot of biomedical research, startups, etc., at the start. He has always been really passionate about people from a top-down perspective where I had a bit more of a grassroots experience and became wise to the “streets”, in a sense, so I have a bit more of a bottom-up approach. The goal here is to be forward thinking with progressive planning within our own capacities. We are smart people but we don’t have a lot of resources available so we do what we can.
I started oyster farming with Pemaquid Oyster Company through college. I worked there in the summer time, which was a family friend who had an oyster farm running and it was a time where farms were just “gentleman's'” farms - just small productions compared to what is being produced and demanded now. Over the years I did some studies and looked at human ecology as a focus and eventually shifted over to working [in oyster farming] full time.
The Damariscotta River, in All It's Glory
Pete: The Damariscotta River is a precious gem. It is surrounded by a lot of great people and is a deepwater spring-fed lake with a small watershed. This is fairly uncommon for Maine because Maine is really linked by its water so there is a lot of communication between the land and the water, along with transportation historically.
The Damariscotta River is a natural selection… The oceanography steps up off of the ocean floor onto the land in two major steps … There’s a natural retention at Glidden Ledge that retains the upper estuary waters from exchanging completely with the ocean for about 7 days. At the head of the estuary there is a salt bay, which acts like a big warming pool that produces a predominantly outward flow of warm waters. Then you have the retention of the nutrient-rich waters washing in from the ocean which creates a rich brackish environment for the oysters to thrive.
What we have now is a hybrid oyster produced by Rutgers University called Flowers. This is a Crassostrea Virginica oyster. Over the years, we tried to grow the colder waters European Flat Oyster but there wasn’t really a strong market for it due to its flavor profile… Maine is producing a pretty limited quantity of oysters compared to the Chesapeake area or the Gulf of Mexico. The farms here are widespread. Damariscotta is the hub of oyster farms and there are two hatcheries on the river. What we have now is an established population of farmers and farms, and as a product of that we are experiencing a natural population of oysters living away from the farms, that are offspring from the farm animals.
I worked for Pemaquid Oysters for 10 years and requested help from Brian to start my own farm, who promised to give me a hand once he finished his doctorate/academia. We incorporated in 2014. I was able to do a lot of work harvesting wild oysters as a product of the farming work I’d done for years. They’ve always been harvested by other fisherman but that was a valuable resource for me near the farm to keep in communication with animals (oysters). What I did was I’d wild harvest, improve the quality by passing them through the farm, and I would take them to restaurants and introduce myself and the oysters that I had, describing that I was starting a farm and that we would come online as soon as we were ready. It was well-received and everyone was really supportive.
What is the Most Rewarding Part of Being an Oyster Farmer?
Pete: Preserving the estuary, primarily. We are seeing a lot of returning species. We see Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles… There are a lot of fish, seals, pups, the growing oyster population… If we support that ecosystem, biodiversity thrives. Individually, oysters really contribute back to the environment. They aren’t just consumers, they’re grazers. They assemble food to digest and locally deposit it as re-digestable food for not only oysters but fish and more.
Oyster farming and distribution is expanding outside of Maine and I think we are really doing things that are starting to catch up to the lobster industry. At the same time, the environments are changing around it. Our goal at Otter Cove is to produce high-quality oysters and shellfish using tailored processes with off-bottom cultivation, and the result has been unanimously positive. What we have is a three-inch oyster, which is the cleanest animal that I’m able to produce in my practice. My aim is to get an oyster as close to “organic” as possible; with idea to have extremely low contamination levels in the tissue of the animals, so when the consumer eats it raw, they aren’t just ensured the quality from the waters, but a natural diploid that is very clean because they are not exposed to some parts of the river that are unfavorable.
What Should we Expect? Describe Your Oyster.
Pete: An Otter Cove oyster is a salty-sweet oyster, like the “foie gras” of the oyster world where they are in a high feed environment all the time. That comes through as a buttery and sweet-salty, with a nice mouth feel. They are delicate and not overwhelming. Oysters that are bottom cultivated can get really large, and often too much to handle for the consumer.
If I could say just one more thing about the ecology… These oysters are not a thick shell. The vision there is that the shell is not consumed; it’s often locally recycled but most of the time it just gets thrown in the trash. Thinking forward, why truck around all that unused weight? Producing an oyster with a thinner shell helps us be more ecologically responsible, which is setting the standard for future development. I imagine there will be a lot more oysters produced like this in the future.
Where to Find Them?
Pete: Eventide is the first place to look in Portland. Central Provisions will also have us! There is a lot of seasonal activity in Maine, and as Boston becomes more established people will look away from there to places like Portland. Old Port Sea Grill and Raw Bar, Portland Country Club, Hurricane in Kennebunkport, Bistro 233 in Yarmouth… The Royal River Grill House. New Castle Publick House is another great spot. Three Tides is awesome… You’ll dig the scene there - it’s our demographic!
Pete: The Maine Tourism Bureau (coming Summer 2017! More info here) is producing an oyster trail guide for tourism, coming out soon, which is really helping the oyster industry out.
The best way to gain exposure to the farm is through Chip and Olga, who have a tour boat that leaves from Damariscotta, “The River Tripper.” They have Airbnb on a couple of boats up here so there is accommodation, and they run oyster/wine tastings on board for a two hour voyage.
And the name, Otter Cove?
Pete: When you get up to Acadia in Bar Harbor, the National Park, there is actually a physical location called Otter Cove. The name of the company stems from Brian and I going up there with our families for the holidays. We loved the shoreline there so that was the inspiration for our name.
Any Other Hobbies, Pete?
Pete: I do some gardening as well. I like to keep my hands in the earth, so to speak!
Pete's Advice on my Attempt to Garden as Well:
Pete: Do what you’re passionate about and don’t feel the need to take on more than you can handle. Enjoy what you do!