FREEPORT, Maine — Aquaculture is a lot of dirty work with a little glamour at the end. Thomas Henninger covers the whole spectrum.
He found oyster harvesting in his teens, and eventually founded Madeleine Point Oyster Farm on Maine's southern coast. In June, he and business partner Ken Sparta opened Freeport Oyster Bar on prime real estate next door to L.L. Bean.
He loves the animal and understands the following it's gained in recent years in the northeast.
"People are learning—more books, more articles, more things on TV," he said about coverage of the industry. "People are interested in oysters because they’re learning more about them."
He completed the farm-to-table pipeline, and over the seven months the oyster bar has been open, he found most of its chairs filled with people who had come from far away in search of a story and product like his.
"It’s in our DNA as North Americans to eat a whole lot of oysters," he smiled. "So, our job is to put good oysters in front of people."
Beyond a good story, Maine aquaculture is profitable.
Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, was quick to say it’s progressed at a responsible rate. The association lists 25 species of animals and plants cultivated by roughly 200 farms in Maine's waters, expected to produce upwards of $110 million a year in sales.
"The most exciting thing, really, about the industry right now, is the number of young people who are interested in it, seeking training in it, and going into it," he said.
The industry has faced some pushback to go with its praise. Several towns have put moratoriums on aquaculture projects. And at a July meeting, some neighbors argued a planned oyster farm in Boothbay would disrupt boating.
"The placement of the one-acre oyster farm has already posed problems for novice boaters, kids, new sailors, or kayakers who don't feel safe being forced into the channel," Erica Peck of Boothbay Harbor said to the crowd. "The addition of five more acres would without a doubt end all recreation on Pleasant Cove."
"The closest dock is up in the cove on the west side of it, and that’s a little over 400 feet away," Clay GIlbert, the farm's applicant, answered. "That, I felt, was ample room for anybody to come into that dock."
Belle and Henninger said they’ve fought to make sure Mainers are the ones farming Maine waters, and they are there to help one another, even if they compete for the same space on a plate some days.