Oyster Farming: Sustainability on a Half Shell

By R.W. Tagert

At the beginning of 2000 the oyster industry was at an all time low and the Chesapeake Bay had just recorded its lowest oyster harvest in history. This is about the time that individuals and the states of Maryland and Virginia began to bring the oyster back to dominance. The states began programs for education and helped new private enterprises with the concept of oyster farming, or aquaculture. The Marine Resources Commission strongly encouraged gardening and farming of oysters and clams.

These bi-valves provide important economic and environmental benefits. In fact, a single adult oyster can purge 60 gallons of water a day! Shellfish farming reduces harvest pressure on wild stocks, while increasing the overall number of shellfish that help clean the water and serve as habitat for fish and crabs.

In the last decade oyster farming has become a booming multi-million dollar industry. Oyster farming under private piers and along the shoreline of privately owned waterfront property has become increasingly popular among environmentally concerned citizens.

By encouraging oyster farming on the tributaries that flow into the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, the waters entering the Bay have become cleaner and clearer than in the past. Disease, habitat loss, over harvesting, and poor water quality have left the Chesapeake Bay’s iconic wild oysters in a dismal state, at just 0.3 percent of their teeming population in the early 1800’s, according to a 2011 research study by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies.

Increasing the Chesapeake’s oyster population is a high priority in Maryland. That is because of the creatures’ ability to filter vast amounts of water, improving its quality. However, restoring self-sustaining populations of wild oysters to significant levels may prove difficult because of a host of ecological, economic, and cultural hurdles. For example, generations of Chesapeake watermen have harvested wild oysters from grounds scattered around the Bay. Encouraging the remaining watermen to embrace aquaculture-oyster farming at fixed locations-is a challenging proposition because this business requires a different set of skills and substantial start-up costs. There are no easy fixes to these challenges.

Maryland Sea Grant Extension plays an important role in promoting progress in collaboration with federal and state agencies. Donald Meritt, a Maryland Sea Grant Extension aquaculture specialist, works in cooperation with many partners to operate the Horn Point Oyster Hatchery, which cultivates young oysters for aquaculture and restoration projects. In 2012, the hatchery produced more than 880 million oyster spat (young oysters that are attached to a larger oyster shell), a record. The hatchery works with its partners to distribute oysters for commercial aquaculture and to build up oyster reefs in the Bay.

Marylander’s Grow Oysters is a private organization where over 1,500 waterfront property owners are growing millions of young oyster in cages suspended from private piers. Their goal is to protect the young oysters during their vulnerable first year of life, so they may be planted at local sanctuaries where the oyster can enrich the ecosystem and the oyster population.

This is where the new and the old clash. The booming aquaculture oyster business has come into conflict with the watermen of the region, who argue that the cages used to cultivate oysters are a menace to fishing lines and crab pots, and in some cases an eyesore for residents with waterfront homes. Unlike commercial oyster farmers, watermen can fish, crab and seek wild oysters with a mere license on public waterways. Farmers must get state-issued leases, which some watermen are pressing them to limit.

You don’t put one person out of business to start another,” said Robert Brown, the president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. “If you put a bunch of cages on the bottom of the water, how are you going to put you trot line down? You can’t sift for crabs, you can’t clam there, you can’t fish there, and you can’t even sport fish there. I am worried about all of it.

Oyster farmers – a mélange of scientists, businesspeople, new-career seekers and others – argue that by recreating oyster reefs, they are helping to clean the area’s bays, stimulate the very ecosystem that sustains crab and fish populations and return a tradition to the region. “I think we can be the modern watermen and bring back this area’s heritage,” said J.D. Blackwell, whose company 38 degree North Oysters is one of the players.

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