Five years ago, Maryland oysters most likely were caught wild by a commercial waterman dredging the Chesapeake Bay bottom. Now, it’s increasingly likely those oysters were farm raised as the state’s aquaculture program has grown exponentially.
Maryland had a small aquaculture program at one point, says Karl Roscher, head of the aquaculture division at the state Department of Natural Resources. But most of the leases of bay bottom had been dormant until five years ago when former Governor Martin O’Malley moved to revive the program.
The idea, Roscher says, was to help bay restoration--oysters are filter feeders that help clean up the water—and provide some economic benefit for watermen hard pressed by the dwindling oyster population.
Patrick Hudson has one of those Southern Maryland leases. He grows more than a million oysters at a time in cages in St. Jerome Creek. "I started out just kind of as a hobby," he says. "I thought it was really neat that you could grow something that was beneficial to the environment and hopefully make some money while you’re doing it."
Now, he sells more than a million oysters a year to a seafood distributor, who moves them to restaurants up and down the East Coast.
Among his employees is Ethan Davis, who began tonging for oysters when he was 14. He says he prefers this because, unlike other oystermen, he doesn’t have to search commercial oyster bars and hope the mollusks are there.
"I don’t have that mental stress on me that I gotta come out here and look for them," he says. "I know where they’re at. (Hudson) tells me how many boxes we need and I can come out here and find ‘em."
On the Eastern Shore, Bobby Leonard had some of those dormant leases, one on the Tred Avon River and another on Edge Creek, south of St. Michaels. He says he "lost interest" in the late 90s, after the diseases Dermo and MSX devastated his crop.
"I mean, you got a tremendous expense there and a lot of labor," he says. "And you know, when year after year, you go there and you see them all dead it really takes the fun out of it."
Then about four or five years ago he got a letter from the state warning him he’d lose his leases if he didn’t start growing oysters again. So, he got some shells from Harris Seafood on Kent Narrows, baby oysters—spat—from the state lab at Horn Point and went to work. He even took on an additional lease where no oysters had grown before.
"It was just plain, hard bottom," he recalled. "Not a shell on it."
He planted spat on shell on that hard bottom and began taking a lot of oysters off that lease and more off his others—thousands of bushels a year, he says—and he sells them to Harris.
Some of those oysters are packaged to be sold individually and others wind up in the shucking room, where shuckers separate them from their shells and drop the meat into stainless steel buckets to become the makings for fried oysters, oyster stew and oyster pie.
Jason Ruth, co-owner of the business, says the growing aquaculture businesses in Maryland have helped him through some hard times. It used to be that once Maryland’s public oyster season--October through March—closed, he had to scramble to find oysters, bringing them in from Texas and Florida to hold onto customers.
"We kind of gave the product away and we had inferior product and it kind of took us out of the market," he says.
Now, he can assure his customers he’ll have Maryland oysters year round.
Nonetheless, Maryland’s program can’t come close to Virginia’s, where they’ve been leasing bay bottom to shellfish farmers since the 1890s. John Bull, that state’s commissioner of marine resources, says they have 5,000 leases covering 121,000 acres.
Last year, Virginia’s shellfish farmers harvested 357,000 bushels of oysters. At about $50 a bushel, that’s almost $18 million dockside value and a total economic impact in the range of $35 million.
Meanwhile, Delaware is struggling to start an aquaculture program in its inland bays. The state legislature adopted a measure in 2013 to revitalize an aquaculture program that had died out in the 1970s and state regulators applied to the U.S. Corps of Engineers for the necessary permits about a year ago. But not much has happened since.
John Ewart, aquaculture and fisheries specialist for Delaware’s Sea Grant program, says it’s not unusual for these kinds of things to take a long time, but "we’re in month 13 and counting right now, and the state of Delaware can’t implement any of its leasing plans until the Corps weighs in on the subject."
Back on St. Jerome Creek, Patrick Hudson says he chose the spot for his True Chesapeake Oyster Company because he was so taken with the beauty of the place. That and he met John Lore, whose family had been in the seafood business in Southern Maryland since the late 19th century.
Lore told him “there used to be millions of oysters out here that really had a great taste. And when I came here there were no oysters. Now, there are you know, several million out here on our farm. So, you know, we’ve made a lot of progress.”