by T. F. Sayles
To visit the Choptank Oyster Company in Cambridge, Md., is to encounter a force of nature called a Kevin McClarren. You don't exactly interview a Kevin McClarren; rather, you enter its gravitational field and then hold on for dear life as you learn, in an hour and 17 minutes, everything you could ever want to know about this oyster farm and hatchery on what used to be a chicken farm overlooking the Choptank River. And we meaneverything, from bottom to top, from the spawning behavior of mature oysters, to the swimming, eating and pooping behavior of day-old larvae; from the tanks and Jacuzzi-like tubs and other plumbing-intensive hardware in the hatchery to the acres of oyster-growing floats tied to a pier at a nearby beach; from the business plan to sell a million oysters a year to what a big, fat Choptank Sweet oyster should look and taste like at your favorite Bay restaurant.
Giving a tour of the operation on a bright early August afternoon, McClarren covers the basics of oyster husbandry before his visitor's eyes have even adjusted to the indoor light. It's all very straightforward, he says: The biggest, best-looking and fastest-growing oysters of each year's class are singled out as the brood stock for the next year's batch. "It's the kind of thing farmers have been doing forever," he says, "You breed the pig that has the best features and gets there the fastest." With that, the pace is set for the flow of information to follow.
"We'll bring in [the brood stock] oysters in January and put them in a tank over on the other side of the building at sixty-eight degrees. And when they've been sitting in the sixty-eight-degree water for eight weeks, we'll bring them in here and force them to spawn, convince them that it's July in April. I raise the water temperature fast, from sixty-eight to eighty-five, in a matter of two or three minutes. . . . Once one of them starts spawning, the rest of them will spawn, because they're what's called synchronous spawners. In order to be successful they have to all spawn at the same time. . . . If one female spurts her eggs out in the water and there aren't males that are putting their sperm in, she's wasting her time. So they've developed this behavior that if they sense any other gamete-either an egg or sperm-they spawn. Everybody tries to go at the same time. That's the key to survival for these guys, and that's why we don't have any oysters left in the Chesapeake Bay. Those beds used to be one right next to the other, but now everything is spread out so you've got a female over here and a male over there, and the success is very low. . . ."
McClarren is a marine biologist, and he talks like one, so it's easy to imagine that he's some hotshot university professor doing field work, and that there is a state or federal grant behind all this, and that this is all part of the oyster restoration effort that has been under way in Maryland for decades. But he isn't, and there isn't, and it's not. That may be the case on the other side of Lecompte Bay, at the University of Maryland's Horn Point Laboratory, which cranks out some 50 million seed oysters a year. But the Choptank Oyster Company, under the corporate banner of Marinetics Inc., is, as its name suggests, a purely private enterprise. Its mission is to grow oysters, sell them to restaurants around the Bay and make money for its owners, Bob Maze and Laurie Landau-a husband-and-wife team (he a PhD specializing in parasite biology, she a veterinarian) who saw it not only as a potentially lucrative business, but also as a way to advance the cause of native oysters-and even to help clean the Bay, by putting millions of the vital water-filtering bivalves back into the water.
"We're all about water quality," McClarren says. "I've got six million oysters in the water, pumping and pumping and pumping. If you do the math on how many gallons of water our oysters filter, it's astounding. You figure they pump on average fifty gallons a day and there's six million of them . . . that's a lot of zeros."
This kind of oyster aquaculture is hardly new; it's been done in other countries for decades. But it offers a particularly important advantage in the Chesapeake, where the once-vast oyster population has been decimated by two wasting diseases-dermo and MSX-not to mention poor water-quality and a century of overharvesting. Those diseases, however, tend not to affect younger oysters, and it turns out the surface-grown oysters reach legal harvesting size (three inches) much more quickly than those growing naturally on the Bay bottom.
The business didn't sprout overnight, of course. The hatchery was set up in 1999 and 2000 and the first floats went in the water a few years later-but McClarren, who has managed the operation from the outset, says the company is now at last closing in on its initial goal of selling a million oysters a year. "Our business plan, the top end, is two hundred boxes a week, which is a million oysters a year. . . . So if we're doing seventy boxes a week now, when we hit October we should be doing three times that." And why does he expect business to triple by October? Well, part of it is simple momentum; business has been growing steadily this year and he expects that trend to continue. More important, however, is therat the end of "October"-specifically, the century-old culinary meme that oysters are to be eaten only in the r months, September through April. That notion persists, McClarren says, despite being as out of date as an ice delivery truck. "The whole idea came from the fact that there was no refrigeration. They used to pack oysters in ice and sawdust and put them on trains, and then eat them raw. Well, yeah, you don't want to do
thatin July! But you know what? They've got this amazing invention called a compressor, and it pushes refrigerant through and it makes things cool! . . . But that
r-month thing just won't go away. One of my guys, Bubba, always says, 'What are you talking about? There's a freakin'
summer!' He says he's going to get a T-shirt made with that on it."
A T-shirt may help, but McLarren figures that they'll just have to slowly drum the idea out of the public consciousness-by making oysters available year round. In that and at least one other way, he says, the company is in control of its own destiny. The other way is having its own hatchery. "When we started this operation," he says, "we knew we wanted to provide ourselves with the seed oysters. You really have to, in case something happens-like last year there was a big lack of oyster seed. Growers were hurting for oysters, because a couple of the hatcheries that were providing them all failed. Nobody was producing the oysters. So these guys, now they had an entire year where they didn't have enough oysters. We didn't want to be in that situation; we wanted to be able to control our own destiny, what's coming in, and then take that excess that we don't need and turn it into more profit.
It's also been the company's plan from the beginning to focus its marketing efforts on the Bay area, where the oysters have real cachet and more or less sell themselves. "Of course I've shipped boxes to Chicago and the West Coast," McClarren says, "but that's rare-it's UPS overnight, and it costs a fortune. The vast majority of all my oysters are eaten in the Baltimore and D.C. area. This is their home, you know? When you get out of the area, up in New York, people there are very neutral about it. But not around here. People are nostalgic for what'stheirs, It's like Natty Bo [National Bohemian beer]. People love that kind of thing. So our biggest market is right here, and I concentrate on it."
He ticks off some of the "high-end" restaurants that regularly buy Choptank Sweets: Bobby's Restaurant & Bar and the Bistro Poplar here in Cambridge, Md., General Tanuki's in Easton, Md., the Narrows Restaurant on Kent Island Narrows, the Tilghman Island Inn, and, in Baltimore, the Woodberry Kitchen and Ryleigh's Oyster.
Forthcoming as he may be with all other information, McClarren declines to say how he charges the restaurants for his oysters, but it's probably safe to say that it's more than the typcial wholesale price of 25 to 50 cents a piece, given the Choptank Sweet's consistent size and flavor (the sweetness comes from the extra glycogen, they say, a result of the rich and steady hatchery diet).
Somehow we've gotten way ahead of ourselves here, because McClarren has much more to say on the subject of oyster husbandry. When we left off, he had quickly raised the water temperature in the tanks containing the brood oysters.
"As they start to spawn I'll pull each oyster out of the tank and put it in a disposable container, the Gladware stuff, that I have filled up with sterilized Bay water. . . . And as soon as that oyster's done spawning I'll pull the oyster out and now I've got a whole container of either eggs or sperm. And I'll collect each oyster in its individual container, so if I get thirty animals to spawn I'll have thirty containers." The obvious question here: How can you tell a male oyster from a female? You can't, McClarren says, at least not from the outside-and even he can't tell by merely opening the oyster up and looking inside. An oyster physiologist might be able to do it that way, but he can't. "It's not like they have a set of [testicles]," he says. The only way I can tell is to shuck it and see if it has egg or sperm."
"I'll get a cross-section of the sperm, so I get good genetic diversity, and then I'll take that mixture and I'll pipe it into each individual container of eggs until I fertilize those eggs. And the fertilization process happens sometimes in five minutes. . . . You have to be very delicate about getting just the right amount of sperm in. Too little and you don't get a high fertilization; too much and you get what's called polyspermy, where more than one sperm penetrate the egg at the same time, and that's it, that egg is shot. . . . So I look at it under the scope. If the proportions look right to me, I just leave it go, and then I check back in five minutes, and after five minutes, if you see a little bump on the side-it's called the first polar body, where the sperm entered the egg-that means that egg has been fertilized. So once I get a fertilization rate that I think is appropriate, these tanks will be filled up and ready to go, and we dump the eggs in there and then I go home. Then I come back the next day, pull another sample and check it on the scope. By the morning they should be swimming around."
On a nearby computer he pulls up microscopic snapshots of the larvae, which at this stage are as small as 40 microns, which is to say less than two one-thousandths of an inch. "These long pieces that you're seeing, that's actually oyster [poop], and these round pieces are actually algae cells. So as they're swimming around they're grabbing hold of the algae cells in the water and then pooping. You can see it a little better there," he says, pointing to another corner of the screen. "That's a turd, and that's an algae. It's all about poop. . . . They kinda look just like little clams. They've got this little velum that they actually stick out in front of them and it propels them through the water. It's got all these little fingers on it. It's very sensitive. It propels them through the water and as soon as they run into an algae cell, those same fingers that are swimming grab on to that algae cell, bring it into the shell, the shell closes, it goes into the gut, and they start swimming on again."
After two or three weeks of swimming around and eating algae, the larvae's biological clocks tell them it's time to "set"-that is, drift to the bottom and attach themselves to a shell, or a fragment thereof. "In nature they'd do the same thing . . . the majority of those [larvae] are going to come down close to where their parents are. They'll hit on the same reef and, boom, they start to grow."
This brings us back to the subject of business-the difference, that is, between this operation and the restoration work on the other side of Lecompte Bay. Neither the people at Horn Point nor nature itself cares if more than one larva sets on a given piece of shell. Not so at the Choptank Oyster Company, where it's all about the "single seed."
"We want one oyster on one tiny chip of shell," McClarren says, "because we're selling to high-end seafood restaurants that are only looking for that. I can't sell two or three oysters stuck together to a restaurant. They don't want them. Most of our oysters go raw on a half shell, so they have to look good on a plate. Even if you're selling oysters to shucking houses, they don't want clusters of oysters, because the people who do the shucking only do single oysters. If you hand them two oysters stuck together they don't know what to do with them. It slows them down, they can't hit their counts." The other significant difference between Choptank Sweets and oysters grown by the state is price-the price, that is, of larvae and seed oysters (also known as "spat"). As much as McClarren would like to sell larvae and spat to restoration projects around the Bay, he says he can't begin to compete with the "state-subsidized" price that people pay Horn Point for the same product. "The CBF called me [last winter] and wanted to buy larvae from me . . . but the price they are paying [Horn Point] for that is a magnitude less than what it costs me to produce the same thing.
"The state of Maryland has been involved in it for so long that it is essentially a subsidized entity. . . . If you take a sampling of the cost of oyster seed farther up the East Coast-New York, Connecticut, Maine-the price of [larvae and spat] is much closer to the reality of what it costs to produce, because those states have not had this giant machine at work in the oyster industry for all these years."
The so-called single-seed oysters are another matter, though, since they're not available from Horn Point. There's no market for them in Maryland at the moment, but McClarren has recently found a couple of out of state buyers- one in Chincoteague, Va., and one in Rhode Island. The former paid nearly $2,000 for 150,000 seed oysters in the six- to eight-millimeter range.
"These are the guys, Leon, Travis, Bubba," McClarren says as we come to the foot of a long pier reaching into the Choptank a mile or so north of the hatchery. Travis Miller is summer help. ("He's going back to school next week, so we're heaping as much abuse on him as we can.") Leon Gereaux is the algae specialist, growing food for the larvae and spat while they live in the hatchery. He's also a computer whiz and designed the logo and artwork that adorns the company's small box truck. And James "Bubba" Parker does a little bit of everything. "Bubba used to be summer help," McLarren says, "but then he came back. I guess he didn't get enough abuse."
The pier is at the very tip of a blunt-ended finger of land called Castle Haven (also the name of the down-at-the-heels 18th-century manor house just visible through the nearby trees), which juts into the river about five miles from Cambridge. And, now that hatching season is over, this is where all the action is for the Choptank Oyster Company-where the harvesting and "crop maintenance" happens. On each side of the 200-foot pier is a two-acre field of daisy-chained rectangular floats made of PVC tubing, each float about 21/2 by 6 feet, each enclosing a large mesh bag of oysters, their contents visible just below the surface.
Today-and pretty much every day, for that matter-the guys have been pulling in certain floats (there's a regular rotation) and "tumbling" them, which is just what it sounds like. They put the oysters in a long spinning drum made of heavy steel mesh and they tumble them, as if they were so many raffle tickets. "They've been working on our one-year-olds today," McLarren says, "spraying them down, tumbling them, thinning out the junk. If you don't tumble them, when they grow in the bag they get very long and thin. So we put them in this drum and they tumble down all over themselves. It makes a rounder and thicker oyster. It's all just done for aesthetics. [The restaurants] want a pretty oyster. They want them to be pretty, all the same shape, all the same size."
Size is just as important as shape for Choptank Sweets. "We don't sell a three-inch oyster," he says, referring to the legal minimum for harvested oysters. "We don't sell a three-and-a-half-inch oyster. Our oysters are typically-it's done by eye-but everything is four to four-and-a-half inches and up. We ask a good dollar for our oysters, so we have to deliver something that puts us over and above everything else."
Where, the visitor asks, is the machinery? That is, how do they get the floats out of the water to tumble them?
"Bubba," says McClarren bluntly. "He unties them and he drags them around . . . with the jellyfishes and everything, he doesn't care. In the winter we'll do it either with waders, five-mil waders, or just use the boat. We've got a Key Largo. We had an old metal johnboat that leaked terribly. You're out there in the wintertime and it's got six inches of ice-cold water in it-and it's a ribbed boat, so it didn't even have a flat floor in it. So when we started making a little bit of money, I said, you know what, the first thing we need is aboat, something we're not going to fall out of and kill ourselves. So needless to say, I love my Key Largo. We even make deliveries in it now."
Yes, McClarren says, answering the visitor's question before it's even fully formed, thishasbecome a habitat for other marine life, "These floats are chock-full of grass shrimp and worms and pencil eels. . . . What's really, really fun is when we flip these floats every two weeks, in the summer . . . when you flip them over and shake them, you knock all the food out of them, the shrimp and stuff, and whole schools of rockfish follow us around! We're like pied pipers. I've taken grass shrimp and held them down to the water, and wild rockfish come and eat them out of my hand. It's incredible! It's literally like the dinner bell. There will be three or four of us in here flipping the floats, and there will be a school of rockfish behind every person. . . ."
"They're full of skillet fish, O. tau, [toad fish], every kind of polychaete [worm] you can name, eels, blue crabs, mud crabs, grass shrimp. . . . There are just a lot of critters. It's just common sense. Any kind of structure is going to draw fish, and it also affords them protection from birds . . . it's like bass with lily pads. Fish get under these things and they feel safe. . . . It's a boon for them; they get in here they don't ever want to leave."
No doubt the oysters themselves don't want to leave either. But leave they must, sooner or later. They have a job to do, says the force of nature called Kevin McClarren. They have to get out there and spread the word that, like Bubba says, "there's a freakin'rin 'summer'."