Dealing with sharing a scarce resource
Mixed feelings persist over oyster aquaculture
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.
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 Annapolis, 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 aquaculture are still mixed.
There are some “dead-set 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 willing 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 business 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.”
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, preand 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.
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 trot lining 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-year-old said. “It’s getting harder every day.”
Russell believes “aquaculture 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.”
Adam Schlesinger works on cages Aug. 11 at Hollywood Oyster Co.’s site near Hog Neck Creek.
Jon Farrington squirts 4 million oyster larvae from a plastic bottle Aug. 20 into a tank near his home in St. Leonard.