FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 07, 2014
By Jennifer Steinhauer
A New Bounty of Oysters in Maryland, but There Is a Snag
By JENNIFER STEINHAUERNOV. 6, 2014
Changing Tide in Maryland
Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times
RIDGE, Md. — A diver pulled a large, porous bag of oysters from Calvert Bay and heaved it onto the motorboat, and the sucker fish and baby crabs began to scurry and skid in a vain search for escape along the slippery floor. Another bounty of bivalves, almost ready for market. But not everyone is excited.
Oyster farming, also known as aquaculture, is one of the few growing businesses here on the western shore of Maryland, a sleepy outpost best known for the sunburned watermen who have pulled crabs and fish from bays like Chesapeake and Calvert for generations. Recent changes to state policy and a growing national affection for oysters (sprinkled with lemon juice only, please) have brought back the shellfish, once as much a staple to Maryland as corn is to Iowa. In the past few years, the state has issued 111 oyster farming leases across 2,240 acres of waters; scores more are pending.
The booming oyster business has come into conflict with the watermen of this 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 the state 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 your trot line down? You can’t sift for crabs, you can’t clam there, you can’t fish there, 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° North Oysters is among a handful of players here.
Maryland has a rich history in the water. American Indians predated colonial settlers in pulling oysters, crabs and other animals from Chesapeake Bay, a nearly 5,000-square-mile estuary, where fresh river water mixes with saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean.
After the Civil War, farming in the region began to fade. Fishing became a bigger part of the economy, and watermen ruled the day, with oyster canneries dotting the area from the late 1800s until the 1980s, when overharvesting and disease doomed the industry. Watermen had become fewer because of eroding conditions, competition and rising costs.
In 2009, President Obama issued an executive order calling on the federal government to lead a renewed effort to restore and protect Chesapeake Bay. A year later, when it was clear that the seven jurisdictions in the bay area would not meet their clean water goals after a 10-year effort, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a new “pollution diet” for the area.
That year, Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the Shellfish Aquaculture Leasing bill, removing many impediments to shellfish aquaculture, including prohibitions on leasing in many county waters, making them available for the first time to nonresidents and corporations, and ending restrictions on the amount of space that could be leased. Oyster farming immediately took off in various regions of coastal Maryland.
Farmed oysters, like their wild kin, serve as filters for the water — one oyster can suck down and spit out 50 gallons of water a day — but are less prone to disease.
“Oysters are the kidneys of the bay,” said Kara Muzia, aquatic program manager for the Oyster Recovery Partnership.
Other states are also having a boom in oysters. In Virginia, almost 77 million oysters were “planted” in 2010, a more than 50 percent increase over the previous year.
Baby oysters are farmed from “seed” in silos full of water that has been pumped from a river or the bay. The oysters then filter out algae (their food source) before sending that water back into the bay through parallel pipes.
“I add nothing to the water,” said Mr. Blackwell, who has scores of cages across seven acres of water on Chesapeake and Calvert Bays and is seeking 60 more.
As the oysters mature, they are placed in cages at the bottom of the water or floating near the surface. To property owners, the cages are often considered floating eyesores. (Mr. Blackwell says he will not use those cages within sight of property owners.) The oysters grow exponentially over several months and are then removed, cleaned, sorted and readied for refrigerated trucks that take them to airports or ports for distribution. Chesapeake oysters, less salty and a bit creamier than the West Coast varieties, are gaining popularity nationwide, farmers said.
“I can sell every oyster I can grow,” said Tal Petty, the owner of Hollywood Oyster to the north. He has about 1,000 cages there and bristles at the complaints from watermen, who he said had long overfished public waters.
“Everybody has a soft spot for the waterman,” Mr. Petty said, “but the fact is that there are not many of them left, and the number of people who are employed by oyster farms compared to the number of watermen is getting very close. It’s a transition time.”
Some farmers are working to cultivate relationships with watermen, exchanging skills and knowledge as the state works to mediate compromises.
“I have been in the middle of it,” said Tom Courtney, 68, who has worked as a waterman his entire life but buys oysters from some of the farmers for his popular, ramshackle seafood restaurant. “It’s a good way to get into a business down here, where everything is against you.”
A version of this article appears in print on November 7, 2014, on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: A New Bounty of Oysters, but There Is a Snag. Order Reprints|Today's Paper|Subscribe