Shellfish farmers aim to restore industry

Staff Reporter

OCEAN CITY, Md. — During the 37th annual East Coast Commercial Fishermen’s & Aquaculture Trade Exposition, a curious group gathered on Jan. 29 to learn whether practical shellfish farming was indeed in their future.
“How do we rebuild an industry?” asked Donald Webster, senior agent of Sea Grant Extension Programs. “It will take quite an effort but I think we can do it.”
He said shellfish aquaculture is expanding with the help of “The Oyster Team.”
“The Department of Natural Resources, Maryland Department of Agriculture, Maryland Agricultural & Resource-Based Industry Development Corporation, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the University of Maryland are working hard at it. MARBIDCO now has shellfish aquaculture loans and NRCS put money into bottom culture grants,” he said.
Webster said shellfish farming requires leasing a portion of a public resource — part of the water column — but the good news was that the governor’s office was currently making an effort to streamline the process.
“Aquaculture is a business,” Webster told the group. “Oysters are live animals. You have to realize you’re raising food — if this sounds like ag, well, it is.”
Webster encouraged the group to look at the investment, time and prospective income of shellfish farming.
“You don’t make money by raising the animal, you make money by selling the animal,” he said.
Webster reminded those interested that it was vital to increase the oyster’s survival by protecting it from predators and maximizing its health and growth rate.
“Raising oysters does have its benefits,” he said. “Your animal isn’t going to swim away, nature feeds them. There’s a strong market and consumers like them.”
Webster said another benefit was that the oyster cycles nutrients, which can help with nutrient management.
John Shockley, co-owner of Hooper’s Island Oyster Aquaculture Company, is one of the watermen who took the plunge.
Shockley now grows 1.2 million oysters under the brand “Chesapeake Gold.”
“I’m the first waterman to jump into aquaculture in the state of Maryland,” he said.
Shockley said he began by building up weller tanks that look like soft crab floats on shore.
He also constructed floating-up wellers that sit in compartments cut out of a floating pier.
Shockley then constructed “down weller tanks” to set his larvae on finely ground up shell, called micro-cultch.
This method grew single oysters from the larvae in about five days.
Shockley worked with MARBIDCO for funding and said it is a learning process.
David Chamberlain, co-owner of the Great Eastern Chincoteague Oyster Company, has been in the shellfish farming business for 15 years.
“I average a quarter million oysters with my flip floats,” he said.
With the help of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, Chamberlain designed a float that was self-cleaning, allowing his oysters to grow faster near the surface.
“I lessened my work by 91 percent,” Chamberlain said. “We kicked our farm into high gear.”
Chamberlain said he designed his float to eliminate bio-fouling and be environmentally friendly.
The floats no longer use bags with ties that can sometimes unfasten in the water and roll away with the tide.
“SARE gives grants to farmers,” he said. “If a farmer’s got a problem that prevents them from production, they’ll help you if you’ve got an idea for a design that’s sustainable.”
The biggest thing SARE expects in return, Chamberlain said, is that he shares his knowledge with others.
“We currently have 4,100 acres in aquaculture leases,” said Carl Roscher, coordinator of the Aquaculture Coordinating Council at the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Roscher said 23 new applicants have requested 33 acres in all which will total 2000 additional acres (some applicants requested more than one site).
Applications have also been submitted for 16 new water column leases that could cover 125 acres.
“This process is long and drawn out because you have to consider the other uses of water,” said Roscher.
Roscher said he expects to see lots of innovations. During his presentation, the Oyster Recovery Partnership representatives asked if a growers’ co-op, like Maryland’s poultry industry would be beneficial to the industry.
Several participants said that co-ops were already forming or had formed in Virginia and Connecticut.
“France has serious industrial oyster activity,” said Standish K. Allen, Jr., Professor of marine science, aquaculture genetics and breeding technology center director at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Allen said France is a great example of how to use aquaculture successfully.
“Typically a body of water the size of a large park is divided into co-op sections on the ocean side,” he said. “There’s oyster culture on the shoreline, resort life and aquaculture are going on in the same body of water. They can co-exist.”