Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 20, 2015 and The Weekly Packet, August 20, 2015
Abby Barrows and the road to Long Cove
by Jessica Brophy
A while back, Abby Barrows and her husband Ben Jackson were looking for some oysters, and made a call to local oyster farm owner Ginnie Olsen. “She said, ‘We don’t have any oysters, but do you want to buy the farm?’” said Barrows. “So we chewed it over.”
Barrows decided to take up Olsen’s offer and is now the owner of Long Cove Sea Farm. The farm includes 2.45 acres of leased ocean off Long Cove in Deer Isle.
“I was surprised and honored that Ginnie wanted to sell to me,” said Barrows.
Barrows’ path to commercial fisheries was circuitous, but she ended up back where she began—on Deer Isle.
“I’ve always been interested in the ocean,” she said. “Growing up here, it’s in your face all the time.”
Barrows studied zoology in Tasmania, and then marine biology in the South Pacific, diving for and researching seahorses. When she returned to the island in 2009, she decided to delve into marine education as well. She joined the staff of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, where she still serves as Coastal Monitoring Coordinator.
Her work with MERI has focused on water quality monitoring, studying red tides and shellfish, as well as microplastics—microscopic pieces of plastic in the ocean. “I would be out in the field and seeing all the ships and boats, and it kept me thinking about the fisheries,” she said. “When I came back here, I realized how important the fisheries are for the future here, how much of a need there is for sustainable businesses.”
Barrows said she already had dabbled with oysters, taking out a trial license. She and Jackson were intimidated by the paperwork, however.
When she decided to take the plunge, it took the better part of a year to get things set up. The bureaucracy was a real challenge, she said. “Transferring the lease was the easier part, but having to get approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, and the DMR…the hardest part was getting the correct licensing for selling oysters, I kept getting different answers about what I needed.”
Late this spring, Barrows brought the farm to the surface and began to seed baby oysters. An oyster farm works by attaching floating bags to moorings. “You string mesh bags to the line, to maximize water flow,” Barrows explains. She purchased 80,000 baby oysters.
During the winter, the bags are sunk to the bottom of the ocean to protect them.
It takes two years for oysters to reach market size, she said. Maintaining the farm is a lot of hands-on work of sorting oysters, making sure the bags stay clean. The farm hopes to diversify in the future, perhaps with seaweed or other sea vegetables. The farm only uses about a third of its lease at the moment.
“We chose the name ‘farm’ because we see it that way, as a food farm,” she explained.
She also hopes to get her tender’s license to be able to give farm tours. “Having people go out and haul the oysters up and see how it works would be good; I think it gives people a connection to their food and where it comes from,” she said.
Shellfish are filter feeders, and are therefore beneficial to the marine ecosystem. “Shellfish don’t add anything to the ocean,” said Barrows. “They actually filter, clean the waters of impurities and help with phytoplankton bloom.”
That’s what makes oyster aquaculture much less controversial than fish farming, she continued. “If you do fin fish, you add food to the environment; you’re putting a nutrient load on the environment.”
People have been “wonderfully supportive” of the farm so far, she said, especially some of the other women oyster farmers such as Ginnie Olsen and Tonyia Peasley of Little Island Oyster. “It’s really more of a club feeling,” she said. Others have offered help in understanding the field, and tips on the paperwork required to get the farm up and running and keep it moving.
While the paperwork may be complicated, there’s one thing that is clear, and that’s how tasty the oysters are.
“Long Cove has delicious water, a lot of people say the oysters are sweeter,” said Barrows.