Shuck and Awe: Oyster Farmers are Helping Southern Maryland Waters and Fueling a New Industry

Smith Creek in St. Mary’s County is quiet this summer day as longtime waterman Paul Kellam and his business partner, John Carbone, head out to a pristine spot – where healthy forests populate the shoreline and ospreys scream – to talk about their new passion: cage-raised oysters that will one day be eaten by oyster lovers.

Kellam and Carbone haven’t struck gold, but at times as they discuss with delight their bivalve progeny, it seems they have. They place oysters in their palms, smiling as they reach out to show me, and I am amazed at how beautiful, textural, colorful and interesting these tiny creatures are.DSC09600

Restoration efforts are rewriting the story of the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), which in the Chesapeake Bay is just beginning to rebound from disease, overfishing and natural beds that were smothered with sediment. However, the narrative is also evolving because of a growing group of Southern Maryland oyster farmers raising fresh generations of oysters (that can be eaten all year) and creating a new fate for this beleaguered and beloved species.

Farmers apply and pay for private leases that allow them to raise and harvest oysters in areas approved by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The farmers’ efforts help take the pressure off a seafood niche historically based on harvesting oysters that grow and reproduce in the wild.

In Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, oyster farmers are also at the center of two important trends – the move toward sustainable aquaculture and “locavores” supporting the farm-to-plate phenomenon. Rob Plant of Blue Wind Gourmet in Lexington Park praises Kellam, who also crabs, fishes and harvests wild oysters during the colder months, for being a good farmer and steward.

“Sustainability is all in a person’s doing – it’s how you manage it,” says Kellam, who explains that he never fishes his beds completely down. He respects the oyster’s local heritage and realizes it will probably take years to discover if cultivated oysters will be a “panacea” both environmentally and economically. But, like other oyster farmers, Kellam is eager to be part of an aquaculture industry that most agree is years behind Virginia’s.

St. Mary’s County oyster farmer JD Blackwell says oyster farming provides a rare paradigm. “It’s a win-win,” he says. “We’re going to make great food and it’s going to be good for me, good for you and good for the environment.” He points outs that the oyster, which acts as a filter, is an important part of cleaning up the Bay.
Blackwell is building a business focused on several components: growing seed at an oyster nursery near the Potomac River; producing equipment, such as floating cages; growing oysters; and helping promote and distribute Maryland oysters to restaurants and gastronomes. His goal is to elevate the Eastern oyster grown in Maryland on menus and in people’s minds, and give it the culinary gravitas it deserves.

Blackwell and his full-time business partner, Tommy Perry (a 2011 college graduate who was a business major), now make it their life’s work to study, test and perfect oyster husbandry. This summer, seed they grew was moved to Blackwell’s first grow-out lease on the southern region of the Bay. It took two years for the lease to be approved.

Changing the Tides

During a visit with oyster farmer Jon Farrington of Johnny Oysterseed Co., there’s a lesson on how “spat-on-shell” is created. “This is a stage where we have the opportunity to give nature some assistance,” Farrington explains. He says that tomorrow he will place five million oyster larvae – which look like finely ground pepper and can fit in the palm of someone’s hand – in a setting tank so they can attach to shells in 700 bags placed in the aerated, temperature-controlled tank.
Several weeks later, the spat-on-shell will be moved and transplanted onto grow-out areas. Three years later, they will be adult oysters.
Farrington is a former aerospace engineer who turned an oyster-gardening hobby into a business. He grows oysters on the bottom of a leased site on St. Leonard Creek and in cages in the Patuxent River for both local restoration efforts and human consumption.

Some of the oysters Farrington raises are sold to restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, where patrons spend as much as $2.50 on one oyster. “People are becoming more educated about, and sensitive to, what they eat. I think oyster farming is going to be huge,” he says.

Oh, the Oyster

“Oysters have been a large part of Southern Maryland heritage since the Native Americans inhabited these shores,” says Brian Russell, chairman of the Southern Maryland Shellfish Growers Association. “They are a sustainable food source and a keystone species to the Bay ecosystem. … Many growers in Southern Maryland have a rich waterman heritage and want to continue the tradition, and growing oysters is a great way to do so.”

Russell is also one of four oyster-farming entrepreneurs – including his father, waterman Sheldon Russell, and fellow St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) alumni Kevin Boyle and Mandy Burch – who make up Shore Thing Shellfish, LLC, which started in 2011.

The company’s products and services are helping catapult the oyster-farming industry and restoration efforts in Southern Maryland, and include selling seed and proprietary “Oyster Oasis” floats, growing oysters on St. George Creek, providing bottom stabilization for planting spat-on-shell in local waterways, and hosting field trips for kids. Shore Thing is also part of a study to explore alternative methods to traditional oyster-setting methods.

Young and ambitious, Boyle, Burch and Brian Russell have been able to learn from second-generation watermen, such as Sheldon, but also blend this traditional insight with newer, sustainable practices.

The group has used that understanding to tell regulators about the barriers oyster farmers face and to educate the public. “I think more people are starting to care about things like oysters, environmental protection and sustainability,” says Boyle.

“Oysters balance algal populations and reduce suspended solids, but the sedimentation resulting from runoff directly impacts their ability to feed and subsequently survive,” explains Allison Rugila, program director of the St. Mary’s River Watershed Association (SMRWA) and a senior at SMCM.

One day this summer Rugila helped 44 teens, as part of a Leadership Southern Maryland program, plant 600,000 baby oysters in a “3D reef area” that is being monitored by SMRWA and SMCM.

The learning opportunity included planting spat-on-shell that had been distributed to 103 waterfront homeowners who helped steward them, over a course of about nine months, for the restoration project. Most of the homeowners are participants in the state’s Marylanders Grow Oysters (MGO) program.

History on the Half Shell

Oyster farmers in Southern Maryland know that they face several challenges. The major ones include increasing the demand for locally farmed oysters and bumping up against a tradition in which many people think of eating oysters only during months with the letter ‘R.’ The latter is tied to ages-old concerns over refrigeration (which is now carefully controlled) and the fact that oysters spawn when the water is warmer and are less tasty and more watery during this time.

But the oyster farmers have an answer for this: Many are raising “spawnless” Eastern oysters, which do not reproduce, grow faster and are more disease-resistant. (These spawnless oysters are known in the trade as “triploids.”)

Couple this new arrival with other factors – such as the push for ongoing restoration, protected sanctuaries where oyster harvesting is not allowed, and a lengthy permitting process to raise and harvest oysters – and it’s clear that Southern Maryland’s ties to the oyster are interwoven.

“I am creating a business, but we all are in this together,” says Tal Petty of Hollywood Oyster Company. Petty, who used to sell software to international airlines, now grows seed (immature oysters attached to pulverized shell known as microculch) and oysters.

Nestled back on Hog Neck Creek, on land abutting Sotterley Plantation and across from Greenwell State Park, Petty and six employees are raising oysters that are generally sold wholesale. Petty had to secure a water-column lease, which is required when oysters are grown in cages and floats.

Growing oysters requires upfront investments, many times upwards of $100,000, although grants and loans are available. It also takes well-vetted knowledge, a lot of sweat equity, and outreach and marketing.

The oyster growers’ interests intersect with an increasing focus on fisheries best practices and oyster health and survival, including wild oysters that grow in the Bay’s tributaries and those that get their start at hatcheries such as the Piney Point Aquaculture Center (PPAC) in St. Mary’s County and Morgan State University’s Patuxent Environmental and Aquatic Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Calvert County.

PPAC supplies “aquaculturists with products [such as spat-on-shell, larvae and shell bags] and resources to facilitate development of the industry,” according to Stan Tomaszewski, facility manager.

While DNR works with shellfish growers and also strives to improve water quality, nonprofits such as SMRWA and the Southern Maryland Oyster Cultivation Society (SMOCS) have made impressive inroads in educating the public about oysters, growing and planting oysters to help revitalize the Bay, and restoring oyster habitats. (SMOCS announced this summer that it will end its oyster restoration efforts at the end of the year because of limited potential to expand to new sites and the group’s success in restoring oyster habitats along the southern Patuxent River, according to SMOCS President Len Zuza.)

Still, there is consensus among oyster farmers that Maryland needs a more robust for-profit aquaculture sector to get more people eating oysters. “[Growing oysters] is an economic solution to an environmental problem,” says J Hixson, a program manager at PEARL. Hixson and director Kelton Clark are hoping that the oyster-farming industry will grow and survive through private-business initiatives, rather than be solely dependent on the state.

Jill Buck of Patuxent Seafood, a retired-childcare-provider-turned-oyster-farmer, takes me out one day on the Patuxent River to the area she and her husband, Andy, lease from the state. Along with waterman David Corbin and a hydraulic winch, Buck hauls up cages of spawnless oysters to be brought to the couple’s operation on a nook of land in Broomes Island.

She takes the oysters to a mechanic tumbler where they are rinsed and sorted and their edges are knocked off so the oysters will grow plump and develop a deep cup – a look that restaurants prefer when selling oysters on the half shell.

Wearing a bright pink T-shirt emblazoned with the company’s “Eat Mor Oyster” motto, Buck seems as happy as – I dare say – a clam. She proudly walks me over to a walk-in refrigerator and shows me bags of just-harvested, clean oysters being marketed as “Patuxent Pride” oysters. “I love doing this,” she says. “I’d like to see a lot of people get into it, to help clean up the water.”

Whatever the motivation, oyster farming in the area is beginning to flourish. “Oyster farming in Southern Maryland is certainly growing,” says Karl Roscher, assistant director of fisheries and aquaculture for DNR. “Our existing farms are growing and producing a top-quality oyster from both water-column and bottom leases. There is strong demand for this product and we anticipate the continued expansion of oyster farming in Southern Maryland. The comeback of the wild oyster and the success of oyster farming are both dependent on our state’s continued commitment to improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.” ✦

The St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival will be held Oct. 19 and 20 at the St. Mary’s County Fairgrounds.

Published in the October 2013 edition of Southern Maryland This is Living

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