Aqua­cul­ture part of new fi­nan­cial iden­tity

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY J.F. MEILS

CAM­BRIDGE, MD. | Kevin McClar­ren has been grow­ing oys­ters in nets on the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay for 20 years.

“We were told it would never work,” said Mr. McClar­ren, who man­ages four acres of float­ing oys­ter grounds for the Chop­tank Oys­ter Co. near Cam­bridge in Dorch­ester County. “Now we’re ground zero for the ar­ti­sanal oys­ter move­ment in Mary­land.”

Since 2011, the Mary­land Agri­cul­tural and Re­source-Based In­dus­try Devel­op­ment Corp. has doled out 50 loans to bud­ding shell­fish aqua­cul­ture star­tups for a to­tal of $3 mil­lion.

Ac­cord­ing to Mr. McClar­ren, the prob­lem is there’s not enough de­mand in-state for all the newly cul­tured oys­ters be­ing pro­duced — or enough dis­trib­u­tors to move them to mar­kets be­yond Mary­land.

Which makes aqua­cul­ture — like so­lar, another rel­a­tive new­comer to the Eastern Shore — not quite the eco­nomic sal­va­tion some hope it will be. Sim­i­lar to Western Mary­land and the state’s north­ern coun­ties, the Eastern Shore is in the process of forg­ing a new eco­nomic iden­tity.

Their quandary: find­ing new in­dus­tries that cre­ate large num­bers of de­cent jobs while pro­tect­ing the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay and main­tain­ing the re­gion’s pastoral feel for both tourists and lo­cals.

The old eco­nomic main­stays of crop farm­ing, rais­ing chick­ens and catch­ing fish and crabs pro­vide jobs and pre­serve the area’s char­ac­ter, but all three in­dus­tries face eco­nomic pres­sures that make their fu­ture un­cer­tain.

There are about 304 mil­lion chick­ens on Mary­land’s Eastern Shore, or 670 per res­i­dent, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus of Agri­cul­ture. In 2015, chicken pro­duc­tion was val­ued at $930 mil­lion, or 41 per­cent of the state’s to­tal cash farm in­come.

The is­sue for some on the Eastern Shore is how the broiler busi­ness is chang­ing, specif­i­cally in the size of chicken houses, which have evolved over time from ope­nair build­ings that were about 16,000 square feet to en­closed struc­tures of some 36,000 square feet, hous­ing up­wards of 30,000 chick­ens each.

“A lot of chicken houses built in the ‘80s and ‘90s have run out their use­ful life,” said Bill Sat­ter­field, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Del­marva Poul­try In­dus­try, Inc. “The growth of new chicken houses of the last few years is not go­ing to con­tinue. Com­pa­nies are not tak­ing on any new grow­ers.”

The im­pact on air qual­ity from the larger chicken houses is com­ing un­der in­creas­ing fire from en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and politi­cians.

Like farm­ing, fish­ing is un­der threat on the Eastern Shore, but the plight of the area’s wa­ter­men is ex­ceed­ingly des­per­ate.

“We are a dy­ing breed,” said Robert T. Brown, pres­i­dent of the Mary­land Wa­ter­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Marine Fish­eries Ser­vice, the av­er­age crab haul in the 1980s was about 45 mil­lion pounds a year. By the 2000s, that num­ber had de­creased to 29 mil­lion pounds per year, prompt­ing sweep­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal and fish­ing reg­u­la­tions that went into ef­fect in 2008.

Those ef­forts ap­pear to be pay­ing off. Ac­cord­ing to the 2017 Blue Crab Win­ter Dredge sur­vey, a mea­sure of the to­tal blue crab pop­u­la­tion, the spawn­ing-age fe­male crab pop­u­la­tion in the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay is 250 mil­lion, the high­est in the sur­vey’s his­tory.

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