A ‘scarce, shared re­source’

Mixed feel­ings from wa­ter­men con­tinue

The Calvert Recorder - - Front Page - By DANDAN ZOU dzou@somd­news.com

Sec­ond of two ar­ti­cles

To many wa­ter­men, it seems to get harder and harder ev­ery year to make a liv­ing on the wa­ter.

On top of in­creased reg­u­la­tions placed on public fish­eries, many feel they have lost a lot of oys­ter­ing area in re­cent years to aqua­cul­ture leases and sanc­tu­ar­ies. And as oys­ter farm­ing con­tin­ues to grow, some wa­ter­men are get­ting into it, while oth­ers re­main skep­ti­cal.

The ten­sion

When Jon Far­ring­ton in Calvert County first signed up to grow oys­ters as a ca­reer, he did not ex­pect the po­lit­i­cal bat­tles that come along with it.

“I wanted to be an oys­ter farmer,” Far­ring­ton said. “I didn’t think I had to go to An- napo­lis, fol­low the bills and find the bad ones.”

Pre­vi­ously, bills that farm­ers con­sid­ered harm­ful to their in­dus­try were in­tro­duced on be­half of the wa­ter­men com­mu­nity in the Gen­eral As­sem­bly. Po­lit­i­cal or­ga­niz­ing was one of the rea­sons that led

to the for­ma­tion of the Mary­land Shell­fish Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion in 2015, of which Far­ring­ton is the vice pres­i­dent.

As a prod­uct that is trea­sured for not only its eco­nomic value but also its environmental ben­e­fit, oys­ters have al­ways had a po­lit­i­cal tinge.

“It’s a scarce, shared re­source,” said Kel­ton Clark, for­mer di­rec­tor of the Patux­ent Environmental and Aquatic Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory at the Mor­gan State Univer­sity based in St. Leonard. “Some­body has to de­cide how to di­vide it among all the stake­hold­ers.”

Fric­tions arise when the two groups are com­pet­ing for the same, lim­ited re­sources (river bot­tom and state sup­port) and the same market.

“My fears were that aqua­cul­ture would over­power and over­shadow our wild har­vest,” said Rachel Dean, a Calvert wa­ter­man.

Far­ring­ton heard some­thing sim­i­lar: Wa­ter­men feared oys­ter aqua­cul­ture would be­come the “Camp­bell’s Soup” of the in­dus­try, dom­i­nat­ing the market and crush­ing in­di­vid­ual wa­ter­men.

Clam­mers were also con­cerned about los­ing bot­toms to leases, and crab­bers were wor­ried that they wouldn’t be able to put their trot­lines down where the cages are lo­cated.

In the wa­ter­men com­mu­nity, at­ti­tudes to­ward aqua- cul­ture are still mixed.

There are some “dead­set peo­ple” who won’t change their mind, said Matt Parker, an aqua­cul­ture busi­ness spe­cial­ist at the Univer­sity of Mary­land Ex­ten­sion. “It’s like talk­ing pol­i­tics. No mat­ter what you say, you won’t change their mind.”

Some oth­ers are open to it, he said, not­ing he be­lieves there could be “a mar­riage of the two” as long as ev­ery­body is open-minded and will- ing to co­op­er­ate.

“There’s enough room for both in­dus­tries,” said Robert T. Brown, pres­i­dent of the Mary­land Wa­ter­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion. Brown owns bot­tom leases in St. Mary’s.

He said there was no bill re­gard­ing oys­ter aqua­cul­ture in­tro­duced in the past leg­isla­tive ses­sion from the wa­ter­men com­mu­nity, and he doesn’t an­tic­i­pate any be­ing put in in the next.

You don’t start one busi- ness and put an­other out of busi­ness, Brown said. “We have to work to­gether.”

Dean said she be­lieves the two could co­ex­ist, be­cause there’s plenty of market for both.

“We are re­al­iz­ing there’s enough market and de­mand to go around,” she said. “We are creat­ing more de­mand for oys­ters,” and that opened a lot of doors to dis­cus­sions.

Dean and her hus­band, Simon Dean, have a lease on Patux­ent River off Broomes Is­land. She sees it as a “Plan B” to wild har­vest, some­thing to ex­per­i­ment with as a “pos­si­ble al­ter­na­tive.”

She said her de­ci­sion is partly a re­sult of what she sees in the di­rec­tion the state is tak­ing.

“The state was tran­si­tion­ing their re­sources and sup­port to peo­ple get­ting into aqua­cul­ture,” she said. “I feel the state

was mak­ing that de­ci­sion for us.”

The bar­ri­ers

Ac­cord­ing to the Mary­land De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources, half of aqua­cul­ture lease­hold­ers also hold a tidal fish li­cense as wa­ter­men.

Most of the wa­ter­men are try­ing bot­tom leases, a method that’s eas­ier for them to tran­si­tion into be­cause it op­er­ates sim­i­larly to wild har­vest. For wa­ter­men in­volved in mul­ti­ple fish­eries, tran­si­tion­ing into farm­ing, es­pe­cially with cages, may not be an easy path.

“Oys­ter aqua­cul­ture is a full-time busi­ness; it re­quires babysit­ting of the cages,” Rachel Dean said.

Be­cause a farm­ing op­er­a­tion is la­bor-in­ten­sive year round, she said for a wa­ter­man to en­gage in oys­ter farm­ing, it would mean “giv­ing up an en­tire way of life.”

To get the cap­i­tal to start a farm is an­other chal­lenge for any­one who wants to get into the busi­ness.

“I of­ten joke that aqua­cul­ture is not rocket sci­ence,” Parker said. “But some­times they can cost as much as rocket sci­ence.”

Parker said some farm­ers self-fi­nance their op­er­a­tions. Oth­ers dip into their sav­ings, get loans or find fi­nan­cial back­ers.

Other than the cap­i­tal and the fi­nan­cial risks as­so­ciated with a new busi­ness, Dean said the type of skills needed in mar­ket­ing and busi­ness may not be the type of skills some wa­ter­men have or want to de­velop. For some, they go out on the wa­ter be­cause there are no other peo­ple out there, she said.

Some wa­ter­men are also wait­ing to see if aqua­cul­ture op­er­a­tions are prof­itable.

“I think there’s a lot of grant money to get them to start,” said Tommy Zinn, pres­i­dent of the Calvert County Wa­ter­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion. “By get­ting a lot of sup­port from DNR, some get into it think­ing they will get a quick buck.”

The as­so­ci­a­tion has a bot­tom lease near Hellen Creek. Zinn said the lease is not for profit but to help out its mem­bers be­tween sea­sons.

“I just don’t see it be­ing prof­itable,” he said.

Public sup­port comes in the form of pro­grams like low-in­ter­est loans through the Mary­land Agri­cul­tural and Re­source-Based In­dus­try De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion and pro­vid­ing farm­ers lar­vae from state-run hatch­eries.

Farm­ers pay for the lar­vae, but the amount they pay is not enough to solely sup­port the public hatch­eries that pro­duce them, Clark said.

Clark re­cently re­tired from the Mor­gan State Univer­sity and is launch­ing a new busi­ness called Open Shell Environmental that will be based in St. Mary’s. He be­lieves the in­dus­try needs to find market-based so­lu­tions to chal­lenges like in­fra­struc­ture, tech­nol­ogy, dis­tri­bu­tion, pre- and post-pro­duc­tions.

The in­dus­try can’t de­pend on public fund­ing to grow, Clark said.

In the past, Parker said he had seen suc­cess­ful, prof­itable op­er­a­tions that have not taken public fund­ing sup­port. In the long term, Parker said oys­ter aqua­cul­ture is prof­itable, if the farm is well man­aged and Mother Na­ture co­op­er­ates.

The fu­ture

Brian Rus­sell still goes out to catch oys­ters dur­ing the win­ter­time with his fa­ther, Shel­don Rus­sell. The pair also part­ner with two oth­ers in an oys­ter aqua­cul­ture busi­ness.

As an oys­ter farmer and a third-gen­er­a­tion wa­ter­man, Brian Rus­sell grew up trotlin­ing and crab­bing, start­ing when he was around 11. Back in the day, his fa­ther could make more than $1,000 a day dur­ing peak crab­bing sea­son — and that was dur­ing a time when crabs were sell­ing at a price of $20 to $25 a bushel, well be­low cur­rent prices.

“It’s noth­ing like what it used to be,” the 31-yearold said. “It’s get­ting harder ev­ery day.”

Rus­sell be­lieves “aqua- cul­ture is higher guar­an­teed that you will make your money back.”

In his view, it may take longer, but it’s more sus­tain­able.

“Ev­ery in­dus­try changes,” Rus­sell said. “If you don’t learn to adapt to that, you are go­ing to hurt your­self.”

STAFF PHOTO BY DANDAN ZOU

Jon Far­ring­ton squirts 4 mil­lion oys­ter lar­vae from a plas­tic bot­tle Aug. 20 into a tank near his home in St. Leonard.

STAFF PHO­TOS BY DANDAN ZOU

Above left, Adam Sch­lesinger works on cages Aug. 11 at Hol­ly­wood Oys­ter Co.’s site near Hog Neck Creek. Above right, Kevin Boyle picks and sorts oys­ters af­ter he pulls them out of the wa­ter min­utes be­fore on St. Ge­orge Creek on Aug. 22.

STAFF PHOTO BY DANDAN ZOU

Oys­ters lie in a bas­ket Aug. 11 at Hol­ly­wood Oys­ter Com­pany’s farm­ing site near Hog Neck Creek.

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