State Partnership Cleans Bay While Maintaining Oyster Beds
By Tim Wheeler
Sunlight glinted off the water as Billy Rice stood on the gunwale of Miss Jill, his 24-foot Chesapeake Classic boat. Gripping the wooden handles of his scissors-like oyster tongs, he repeatedly worked them open and shut.
From the murky depths of the Wicomico River came a scraping sound as the teeth in the metal claws of the tongs raked up shells lying on the bottom.
“Yessir! That looks pretty,” exclaimed Kevin Warring as Rice lifted the tongs out of the water and deposited a batch of muddy oysters on the boat. Nine of the bivalves clung together in a clump that Rice said watermen call a “flower.”
Those oysters represent a new wrinkle in the centuries-old business of harvesting the Chesapeake Bay’s once-bountiful shellfish. Rice and Warring are members of an unusual oyster farming cooperative in Charles County, MD. They and the other 10 co-op members are raising oysters on 28 acres of leased bottom in the Wicomico, a Potomac River tributary.
There’s nothing out of the ordinary about farming oysters that way. There are nearly 480 oyster farming leases in Maryland, and more than three-fourths of them are for raising bivalves on the bottom. Many are held by watermen looking to supplement what they can forage in the wild from public waters.
But what’s sending ripples across the Bay area is that the co-op is getting paid to plant oysters. In July 2022, Charles County struck a deal with the co-op, agreeing to annually pay at least $53,000 for the next eight years to cover its costs for planting fresh batches of hatchery-spawned oysters. Aquaculture operations generally must come up with their own operating capital.
The co-op still gets to harvest and sell the oysters when they’ve grown to marketable size after two or three years. What the county expects to get out of the deal are water-quality credits that those oysters can earn from the state of Maryland for removing nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus — from the water as they feed and grow.
It’s a novel arrangement, which advocates hope will inspire other deals in a so-far moribund market for nutrient removal credits that oyster farmers can earn.
“It seemed like not just a win-win, but a win-win-win situation,” said Mark Belton, Charles County’s administrator and a former secretary of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. The nutrient removal credits will help the county meet its regulatory obligations in the Bay cleanup, he said, while the county is helping to sustain a fishing industry that’s an important part of the local culture.
“Plus, it’s a food security issue,” Belton said, because it ensures residents still have access to fresh local seafood.
Members of the co-op, all of them watermen, say the payments reimburse them for the time they spend planting and tending their underwater crops, then doing the necessary paperwork to earn water-quality credits.
But Warring, the co-op’s managing director, said that money is not really the main driver.
“Many of our members want to see a thriving oyster population and a thriving set of local watermen who can provide fresh food for residents,” he said.
New way to control pollution
The Wicomico River once brimmed with oysters. In 1973, Rice recalled, when he started working on the water fulltime, there were 163 boats in the river on the opening day of oyster season. “Everyone caught their limit,” he said.
Oyster populations have declined precipitously since then throughout much of the Bay mainly because of pollution and diseases, but also overharvesting. While oysters have rebounded some in the last decade or so, the generally low salinity in the Wicomico hasn’t been conducive to natural reproduction that might restore reefs in the river.
Rebuilding the Bay’s oyster population is a priority for the Chesapeake restoration effort because of the bivalves’ ecological benefits as well as their economic value. Oysters filter nutrients and some sediment from the water as they feed, and the reefs formed by their accumulated shells provide habitat and food for a variety of marine organisms and fish.
The reefs also can help reduce shoreline erosion by buffering wave action.
Publishers Note: This column is an excerpt from a piece written by Tim Wheeler who is the Bay Journal’s associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can read the column in its entirety online at www.bayjournal.com/news and you can reach Tim at 410-409-3469 or email@example.com.