Aquaculture part of new financial identity
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.