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Oyster Farming – Next Entrepreneurial Pursuit?

Nov 25, 2014 08:50PM ● Published by Erica Shames

by Rona Kobell

Oyster aquaculture production continues to rev up the seaside economies in Maryland and Virginia, but the need for better leasing laws and procedures coupled with a tough year for hatcheries slowed production in 2014.

Hatcheries from Maryland to North Carolina experienced water-quality problems, and scientists haven’t figured out why. Unlike in 2011, when hatchery managers and scientists blamed a slog of freshwater from hurricanes for poor production, this year’s problems seem site-specific.

At the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Hatchery in Cambridge, production was down about 30 percent, according to Don Webster, an extension agent who specializes in aquaculture. Horn Point is the largest hatchery in Maryland, and the state owns and operates it. Unlike many private hatcheries, Horn Point’s is loaded with top-notch equipment and several filtration systems. Webster said Horn Point staff consulted with oyster experts elsewhere, but couldn’t figure out the problem, which lasted from May until July.

“This was the first time we’d seen it widespread, and for that long,” Webster said. “Nothing seemed to work on it.”

Horn Point will close the year with about 900 million spat, which oyster farmers and the state plant on the bottom after the larvae set on oyster shells. In 2013, Horn Point announced it produced more than 1 billion spat, more than any other hatchery in the country. That was after several years in the 500-million range.

Spat-on-shell is how most oysters are grown in Maryland and Virginia’s aquaculture operations. These oysters largely go to the shucking house market.

In Virginia, the half-dozen private hatcheries cater to both the spat-on-shell market and those who grow individual oysters in floats and cages. They fared better than Horn Point overall, said Jim Wesson, who is the head of conservation and replenishment for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

But individual hatcheries had their own crises. One on the Eastern Shore lost several days of production because a neighbor removed creosote from pilings during the spawning season.

Another, on Gywnn’s Island, was having its most productive year on record until the Virginia Department of Transportation began sandblasting paint off the island’s tiny bridge. Two days later, nothing would grow, Wesson said.

When asked what specifically killed the larvae, which are extremely sensitive, Wesson said it was a combination of the zinc, copper and cadmium in the paint and stripping materials, all of which got into the water.

“If you had to list things that would kill an oyster larvae, those would be on it,” he said. “Whatever this was, it was messing up their digestion. You could see it in the microscope. The metals are definitely there.”

State officials persuaded the transportation department to halt the project, and production resumed. But much had been lost because of the timing of the painting. Wesson said his department is trying to educate environmental engineers so they plan around the spawning season. Had the bridge been painted anytime between July and December, he said, the larvae probably wouldn’t have been harmed.

Despite the setback, oyster aquaculture in both states seems to be steady, with the Chesapeake Bay bivalves in both states plentiful enough to send to Louisiana for shucking.

Laws in both Maryland and Virginia have focused on making it easier for entrepreneurs to enter the oyster farming business. In 2009, Maryland passed a law legalizing oyster aquaculture in every county and requiring oyster lease-holders to work the leases they had or lose them. Now, Maryland has 318 shellfish aquaculture leases on nearly 4,000 acres. Karl Roscher, who manages aquaculture at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said he’s not certain how many jobs have been created. But the department has permitted and registered more than 1,400 individuals to have some role in leased-bottom aquaculture.

This number is poised to grow, as the department is reviewing 77 lease applications. Since the law changed, Maryland officials have struggled with the time it takes to issue leases, which has been up to a year and even longer in some cases. State officials have said they would like to reduce the time to three months, which is the average time in Virginia. The difference between the states is in the oversight of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Baltimore District’s review process takes much longer than the Norfolk District’s, even though the Baltimore district did adopt some of Virginia’s permitting practices.

Also helping Maryland’s numbers of aquaculture operations grow are several state programs that help watermen transition to aquaculture. Low-interest loans are available through the state agency, Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corp. Several programs within the Maryland Department of Agriculture have funded capital investments in oyster farms. Webster runs a remote-setting training program that teaches budding aquaculturists how to set oyster larvae on shells. He has established 32 tanks in 10 locations.

Virginia’s government has also invested in cultivating its oyster industry, and used some of the $15 million crab disaster funds it got in 2009 to help watermen buy materials and build cages.

In the past, Maryland has looked south and groused that Virginia had a better system for setting up and cultivating an aquaculture industry. A private oyster fishery, which is largely spat-on-shell aquaculture, has been thriving in Virginia for more than a century. It has 100,000 acres under lease. Last year’s combined public and private harvest topped $22 million, with the private leases comprising more than half of that.

But Virginia’s famed structure has hit a snag. It has no use-it-or-lose-it law. Anyone who pays the $500 application fee can get a lease of up to 250 acres and keep it for 10 years. It costs $1.50 per acre. After that, they have to show a plan to plant shellfish, but even that requirement is full of loopholes, Wesson said.

About five years ago, Wesson noticed many waterfront homeowners applied for large leases in front of properties with the hope of blocking would-be farmers from trying to plant oysters there. Those applicants are still holding on to those acres, many of which could be productive and contribute to both the ecology and the economy.

But another group has emerged: Poachers. They apply for leases on dead bottom just to have access to good bottom, so they can steal the crop. They will take oysters from private beds or the public bottom, Wesson said.

Many farmers will have oysters reach market size in March or April, but they won’t harvest them until the summer, when the wild fishery no longer operates and the price is high. Longtime watermen know that, he said, and will poach the crop and take the lower price. And they can see the police coming, if they’re on the waterways, and get away quickly.

Wesson said he can spot the applicants who are not serious; they’re asking for large plots, of 100 acres or more, and they’ll often apply for one in their name and then their spouse’s name. He knows they won’t plant the leases; there isn’t enough shell in the Chesapeake Bay for that kind of acreage.

Those who are serious about getting into the business will ask for one or two acres; those that are already in it might ask for 25 to 50. In the real industry, Wesson said, the trend is to get smaller; in “the lawless one,” as he calls it, it’s to get bigger.

Wesson is hoping to make the law change at an administrative level. If it’s not, he said, the commission will work through the legislature.

“It’s not doom and gloom. People are making money and people are doing this. But if we don’t get those loopholes closed up it’s going to get worse,” Wesson said. “We have got to change that old law.”

Distributed by Bay Journal News Service

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