The Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission recently supported the concept of boosting Maryland's oyster fishery using aquaculture. The fact that the Chesapeake Bay's oyster population and fishery is hitting rock bottom is old news. The good news is that aquaculture can produce oysters for market and keep watermen on the water, all while the oysters are in the Bay providing habitat and filtering the water.
I was a commercial fisherman in Virginia for nearly 20 years and every fishery I participated in seemed to be going south. I would switch from one fishery to the other in order to make a living. The final frontier for me was patent tonging for hard clams, and I wasn't long figuring out that that fishery would not last. Sure enough, there are only about 25 clammers left in Virginia who are actively working full time in the fishery.
In the early 1990s, I had the opportunity to listen to several seminars sponsored by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science on oyster aquaculture. The idea intrigued me, and before long I was investing a small amount of capital in oyster seed and grow-out gear. I also tried growing a few clams with my goal being to eventually get out of the wild fishery and direct all of my efforts in the shellfish aquaculture industry.
I was well on my way to becoming a successful full-time shellfish grower when I had the opportunity to go to work for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) doing environmental education and oyster restoration. For the last 8 years now, I have been operating an oyster farm for CBF and have produced nearly 6 million adult cultchless oysters (grown from spat independent of a substrate, as opposed to spat on shell, which we also grow at CBF) that were planted for restoration but could have been sold. We are now working with the oyster industry to demonstrate the feasibility of spat on shell production by watermen and large growers for the market production of oysters. Meanwhile, I still have my own small oyster farm (separate from my work with CBF) and grow approximately 100,000 oysters per year for sale to local and out-of-state restaurants.
The return on investment isn't too shabby, either. Consider the following two alternatives, each of which nets $1,250:
- Catching 15,000 wild oysters (50 bushels) with hand tongs
- Growing 5,000 oysters (16 bushels) in cages or floats
Virginia has long been practicing oyster aquaculture, first on private leases where leaseholders would purchase wild oyster seed, and later with the use of cages, bags and trays, using hatchery-produced seed to grow oysters for the half-shell trade. Historically, Virginia has produced more oysters from private leases than from its public oyster grounds, demonstrating that the private sector is better suited than state government to produce oysters for commercial harvest. (Oyster production on private grounds started in the mid-1800s.)
Could oyster farming one day be viable in Maryland? I think so. Of course, some major changes would have to occur. The laws and regulations governing leasing Bay bottom would have to be updated, and a more streamlined permitting process would have to be developed. But I think what's most important is that our watermen remain key players in the industry. Yes, they would have to adapt to a business that is more like farming than harvesting a wild resource. These changes may be significant, but they are not impossible to overcome.
For those of us who work the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, oysters are in our blood, and it would be a great thing to see more watermen once again be able to pass the fruits of their labor on to future generations.
I believe the future is bright for oyster aquaculture. It requires some adjustments in the thinking of watermen, but the fact is, oyster farming will keep watermen on the water producing Chesapeake Bay oysters. Our Bay has changed over the centuries and it continues to change. Watermen should consider changing as well if they want to continue working on the Bay. Will it be easy? Of course not, but nothing worth having ever comes easy, whether it be 15,000 wild-caught oysters or 5000 oysters grown in cages.
Think about it!