A Day at the Damariscotta River Oyster Celebration

I had never been a fan of raw oysters. I’d only tried them once or twice but didn’t quite know what to make of them. Was I supposed to chew them or just let them slither down my throat? I couldn’t wrap my head around why so many people are such big fans of snot-balls-on-the-half-shell.

If the slimy consistency of raw oyster wasn’t enough to deter me from eating the shellfish, then the subject of my summer research certainly was. Here at Bigelow, I have been studying a harmful algal bloom diatom called Pseudo-nitzschia. It is a marine phytoplankton that produces a neurotoxin called domoic acid, which concentrates in the guts of filter feeders such as oysters. If concentrations are high enough, a person or animal eating toxic shellfish can get Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP), which is just as scary as it sounds. The first cases of ASP were recorded in 1987 after a shellfish festival on Prince Edward Island, where over 100 people were sick and four died. Toxic blooms have also been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of marine mammals and seabirds along the western coast of the US for years. This past fall was the first time the Gulf of Maine saw a bloom toxic enough to force closures on shellfish harvesting along the coast of New England.

Pseudo-nitzschia sp.: the diatom responsible for Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning and the subject of my research.

With all of this in mind, I warily attended the Damariscotta River Oyster Celebration this past Saturday.  Shaking off thoughts of the 1987 P.E.I. oyster fest, I settled into the event and finally started to understand what the oyster hype is all about.

The celebration was held at Darrows Barn in Damariscotta, a charming venue located near the Damariscotta River, where 80% of Maine’s shellfish are harvested. Seven local oyster farms were featured at the event: Mook Sea Farm; Pemaquid Oyster Co.; Glidden Point Oyster Farms; Muscongus Bay Aquaculture Inc,; Norumbega Oyster Inc.; Dodge Cove Marine Farm; and Otter Cove Farms. Each farm set up a table with dozens of raw oysters, lemon wedges and a sampling of mignonette sauces.

Farmers stressed the importance of safe handling practices – keeping oysters ice cold from the time they are harvested to the minute they’re eaten.

A ticket to the festival entitled you to a half-dozen oysters, shucking lessons and the chance to hear a panel discussion with head growers from each farm in attendance. Before the discussion, everyone had a chance to mill around and try the oysters.

At the first table I came to, I was instructed to top off my oyster with lemon juice and some salty soy sauce mignonette. I clinked shells with the girl next to me, and we both tossed them back. Unfortunately, my oyster didn’t budge, so all I got was a mouthful of soy sauce. Somewhat shaken by my failed attempt, I loosened it from the shell, reapplied my toppings and tried again. It was a success! The texture was a little off-putting, but it tasted delicious. I spent the next hour making my rounds and trying the oysters from every farm. By the time I was finished, I was an oyster slurping expert.

Shucking lessons were provided courtesy of Walpole Barn.

Once everyone had filled up on oysters, it was time to learn about the process that went into raising them. Representatives from each farm took to the stage and talked about the practice of growing oysters, as well as some of the challenges that face growers in a changing climate. As much as I enjoyed the oyster tasting, I thought this was the highlight of the event.

The farmers fielded questions from the audience after the talk. I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from asking about the current harvesting closures in the Gulf of Maine due to the threat of ASP’s cousin, Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning. I felt it would be in bad taste to bring this up in front of a crowd that had just gorged itself on raw shellfish. After the presentation was over, I approached Bill Mook of Mook Sea Farm and bombarded him with questions asking why the oysters I just ate wouldn’t have me keeling over in a few hours. He reassured me that the upriver locations of these farms had never seen toxic conditions because of the shape and depth of the river and the flow of the tide. He also explained that different types of shellfish filter and release toxins at different rates, so the American Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) that they were serving that day was safe to eat. Rest assured, dear readers, that two days after the celebration I am the picture of health, and I have a renewed sense of the importance of my research. Understanding what causes these toxic blooms is the first step towards protecting local harvesters and shellfish consumers (such as myself).

Julia Park is an REU intern working in Dr. Pete Countway’s Lab.

A Day at the Damariscotta River Oyster Celebration