Issue: October 2011
Salvation on the Half Shell

Long on different paths in pursuit of the same oyster, Maryland and Virginia appear destined to meet in the middle, where the name of the game is aquaculture.

by Marty LeGrand

Journalist H. L. Mencken famously said of his hometown's gustatory good fortune, "Baltimore lay very near the immense protein factory of Chesapeake Bay, and from the bay it ate divinely." The Chesapeake still renders heavenly fare. But what seafood lover wouldn't gladly be transported backwards about a century to sample the glory days of the world's largest estuarine buffet?

In his memoir, Happy Days, Mencken recalled the cornucopia of his childhood: hard crabs "with snow-white meat almost as firm as soap," soft-shells, crabcakes, the crab soups (shore style and bisque) he later learned to savor, Maryland terrapin, Norfolk spots, shad large enough to feed a family, and shad roe too. And oysters, oysters, oysters: raw, roasted, scalloped, stewed, baked in pot pies and fried as fritters (called "flitters" in Charm City). Back then, the late 1800s, Chesapeake oysters fed not just the region but the nation too, a mollusk so prized that the arrival of a shipment of Chincoteagues once reportedly prompted a brawl among covetous New York City vendors. In the  winter of 1884-1885, Bay oystermen harvested a record 15 million bushels to meet demand.

It's no secret those days are over. Oyster harvests have plunged so drastically--to one percent of historic levels--today's watermen are hard-pressed to make a living. Hubris, overfishing and pollution have robbed gourmands of other Chesapeake delicacies too. American shad and diamondback terrapin are now protected species, their harvesting banned. Even the Bay's iconic blue crabs often scuttle a fine line when it comes to sustainability.

What's a struggling natural protein factory to do? Cultivate its seafood, that's what. Chesapeake aquaculture represents a multimillion-dollar industry, encompassing in its broadest sense everything from traditional shedding houses for peeler crabs to modern self-circulating facilities where seafood is spawned, grown and harvested entirely indoors. Aqua farms are raising oysters, clams, crayfish and shrimp, plus catfish, tilapia and other finfish, destined for restaurants, raw bars, grocery stores and seafood markets here and across the country. The saltwater segment of the industry (its technical name is mariculture) grows oysters and clams in their natural setting. Although hatchery-raised, these mollusks spend most of their lives in a native environment, so cultivation does not adversely affect their flavor and arguably enhances it.

"A farmed oyster is plumper, sweeter and prettier than its wild cousin," wrote food writer and oyster connoisseur Rowan Jacobsen in a 2007 New York Times editorial urging diners to favor cultivated, sustainable Chesapeake oysters over wild Bay bivalves.

No other critter has influenced Chesapeake aquaculture more than the native oyster, Crassostrea virginica. It indirectly spurred modern growing techniques and decidedly split Bay policy-makers on the issue of cultivation. All the way back at the turn of the 20th century, Maryland and Virginia surveyed their respective oyster populations, each designating about 250,000 acres of historically productive bars as a public resource open to all harvesters, including commercial fishermen, at no cost. Both states at the time intended to lease the remaining grounds for private aquaculture. Virginia did just that, encouraging an early, rudimentary form of "growing" bivalves. Gathering hardy seed oysters from fertile reefs, growers transplanted them onto privately leased grounds. For a time, cultivation made Virginia the Chesapeake's top oyster-producing state. While Virginia sprouted a new industry, Maryland remained rooted, favoring public oyster beds to privately leased farm beds---the latter having always been unpopular among watermen. Indeed, to this day most Maryland watermen condemn the idea of privately leased beds, arguing that it amounts to selling off a public resource and of course is a threat to their livelihood.

It took the alarmingly swift collapse of oyster harvests in Virginia 50 years ago to launch the Bay's aquacultural revolution. The accidental rabble-rousers were two tiny parasites, Haplosporidium nelsoni (aka MSX) and Perkinsus marinus (Dermo). Invading the lower Bay first, they decimated the commonwealth's oysters. Watermen could find no healthy oysters; shucking houses closed; seafood wholesalers either folded or found new ways to make money. And a few intrepid businessmen gambled--successfully, it turned out--on the emerging field of laboratory-cultured shellfish. Namely clams. 

In Maryland, however, the disease-bearing oyster parasites, which prefer saltier waters, had a harder time infecting the upper Bay. With traditional oystering still possible (though greatly diminished), Maryland largely ignored aquaculture, as its watermen were able to preserve the status quo. It was "a century-long demonstration of how to discourage private culture," criticized a 2009 shellfish aquaculture report prepared by Maryland's and Virginia's Sea Grant extension programs. (Today, the state's primary water-grown "crops" are non-edible: ornamental and tropical fish, and aquatic plants.)

In recent years, two operations have nudged Maryland aquaculture forward by supplying oyster culture's most precious commodity: baby oysters. The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Horn Point Laboratory operates the East Coast's largest oyster hatchery, located along the Choptank River in Cambridge. While focused on spawning and cultivating oysters for environmental restoration and public beds, Horn Point hatchery also supplies private growers. The state's sole privately run hatchery, the Choptank Oyster Company [see "Cash Crop," October 2008], is also based in Cambridge. But it's not only a hatchery; it's a self-contained oyster factory, growing as many as 2 million home bred oysters annually and selling them to restaurants up and down the Bay. These big, plump "Choptank Sweets" grow to market size in comparatively short order, largely because they are grown in floats at the surface.

The Choptank Oyster Company's success notwithstanding, the disparity in the two states' private oyster leases is glaring: 7,000 acres in Maryland last year as opposed to nearly 100,000 in Virginia. But that status won't remain quo for long. Governor Martin O'Malley's administration is poised to impose broad changes this fall that will increase the state's non-harvestable oyster sanctuaries by 16 percent and rewrite outdated leasing laws--the state's most forceful attempt yet to boost shellfish aquaculture, restore wild oysters and transition watermen into oyster farming. 

Two different states; two divergent paths. Their stories are reflected in the rebirth of coastal Virginia's family sea-food trade and the leap of faith taken by a group of Southern Maryland watermen.

Virginia: Rebirth in a Test Tube 

On a simmering July afternoon, with the tide out and the mudflats glistening, sleepy Willis Wharf on Virginia's Eastern Shore doesn't strike a visitor as the aquaculture hub known as "Clam City." The village contains modest houses, a small post office, a former general store and a row of waterfront commercial buildings of varying vintages operated by Willis Wharf's first families of wholesale seafood: the Ballards, the Terrys and the Walkers. For generations, they steered their businesses through storms and droughts. They couldn't outmaneuver the parasitic invasion of 1959, however.

"They literally saw ninety-five percent mortalities overnight. There were certain areas that hung on for another few years, but basically the entire industry went away in a matter of a couple years," says Michael Peirson, who retired in July as president of Cherrystone Aqua Farms, a division of Ballard Fish and Oyster Company. Peirson wasn't here for the disease debacle, but decades later his work helped rescue the company. Eventually, Virginia's hardscrabble Eastern Shore became the Bay's booming aqua-farm belt.

Founded in 1895, Ballard historically relied on two revenue sources, Bay oystering and Atlantic pound-net fishing. By the 1950s, though, oysters were the primary product, harvested by watermen contracted by Ballard and processed at company-owned shucking houses. Besides the oysters, the parasites' immediate victims were shuckers and watermen as Ballard scrambled to diversify, opening a Bay-side campground in Cheriton, north of Cape Charles, and a motel in Norfolk. 

Peirson joined the company in 1983. Unemployed and completing his doctorate in marine biology, the Pennsylvania native was living in his family's fixer-upper not far from Willis Wharf when Chad Ballard Sr. contacted him. Shellfish scientists, including Peirson's former co-workers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) lab in Wacha-preague, weren't able to determine how native oysters spread the killer parasites. But Chad Ballard Sr. had a bold alternative in mind. He summoned Peirson to the campground and shared it. 

"Find out who's the most advanced clam aquaculture person and go visit him, then come back and tell me whether you think it's feasible or not," he instructed Peirson as they sat in Ballard's parked car, not far from the site where Cherrystone eventually became the world's largest hard-clam grower. 

The facility Peirson visited in South Carolina gave him hope. For starters, the sandy-mud bottom Ballard's company already leased between Cherrystone Inlet and Kings Creek was more suited to clam culture than coastal Carolina's deep muck. We can do better, the marine biologist told his boss-to-be. Peirson was given a job and a goal: grow 5 million clams annually. 

After four years of research and development, Cherrystone Aqua Farms began operating from a small unheated/uncooled building near the mouth of Kings Creek. Today the complex includes a large administrative building/packing-shipping facility, a climate-controlled hatchery where clams are spawned and reared, a greenhouse for growing algae (clam pablum) and large, open tanks called upwellers in which juvenile clams "grow out" until they're big enough to spend the next 30 months in the Bay. The company, which employs 75, owns another hatchery in Willis Wharf, where Ballard's original shucking house stood. Including additional beds along the seaside barrier islands, Cherrystone controls 4,000 acres of clam leases and about a third of U.S. hard clam sales--52 million littlenecks in 2009. (Virginia's top aquaculture crop, clams are a $65 million industry there.) 

Clams are sowed on framed beds covered tightly with netting to keep out predators like ravenous cownose rays (here called bullfish), which can snarf down a bed in an hour. The company uses co-op growers--an idea borrowed from the Perdues--who raise Cherry-stone seed clams on their own leases for a share of the sales profits.

With the relaxed stride of a man on the eve of retirement, Peirson shows off the Cheriton plant's gleaming hatchery and the trappings of the company's latest venture: oyster farming. Five decades after Ballard gave up on oysters, Cherry-stone is growing them using a sterile, disease-resistant bivalve developed by VIMS. Fast-growing "triploid" oysters (named for their extra set of chromosomes) are now used by 80 percent of the Chesapeake's oyster growers, according to an industry survey [see "A Dip in the Gene Pool," page 50]. In contrast to wild oysters, which take three years to reach minimum harvest size (three inches), triploids are harvestable before age two, when diseases usually strike.

There are three ways of growing oysters: at the surface in floating cages, on the bottom (in cages or bags) and traditional spat on shell, in which larval oysters attached to recycled shells are planted on reefs and left until harvest time. Each method has its tradeoffs, says Daniel Grosse, founder of Toby Island Bay Oysters in Chincoteague, which produces 100,000 to 200,000 oysters annually using both floating and bottom cages. Oysters grow faster at the surface, where there's more oxygen and food, but floating cages endure greater wrath from storms and from neighbors who dislike having a flotilla of PVC cages next door. Out-of-sight bottom cages hold up better, but entail frequent cleaning and a longer growing cycle. Relying mostly on Mother Nature, spat on shell requires patience but no maintenance.

The new breed of oyster farmer supplies a less traditional Chesapeake market: the lucrative half-shell trade. Oysters reflect the salinity, algae and mineral content of the water in which they're grown, Grosse says. "Every bay, nook and cranny has its distinct flavor. It's like wine." Half-shells must acquire the right taste to satisfy finicky customers.

During the final phase of growth, Cherrystone, for example, moves its oysters to beds off Chincoteague, where they absorb the sea-salty tang buyers prefer. To revive the reputation of Chincoteague oysters, Grosse travels the Washington-Baltimore gourmet grocery circuit educating consumers.
"Most have never heard of Chinco-teague, and if they have it's because of the ponies," he says. "Some very old people remember the oysters."

Improved culture techniques, disease-resistant hatchery seed and emerging markets have spurred a nearly five-fold increase in Virginia oyster plantings since 2005. Robins Buck, secretary of the governor's Virginia Aquaculture Advisory Board, says clam growers can also take some credit. Farmers and state agencies realized, "Hey, we did this with littleneck clams, we can do this with oysters," Buck says.

At Cherrystone, oysters aren't the only sign Ballard Fish and Oyster has come full circle. Peirson's successor is Chad Ballard Jr., the fourth generation to run the business. Thanks to aquaculture, the stalwart seafood families of Willis Wharf are thriving.

Maryland: Faith in the Future

As sportfishing boats zip past on a perfect summer afternoon, Rachel Dean steers Rough Water, a 40-foot workboat, slowly down the Patuxent River. Riding with her is about 200 hundred pounds of faith in her family's future: mesh bags bulging with hatchery-raised spat-on-shell oysters she and colleagues will plant on a bar leased by the Calvert County Watermen's Association. 

In general, watermen aren't happy with the state's plans to prod them into oyster farming, a move many consider culturally insensitive and financially unrealistic for shoestring businesses like theirs. "If you think farmers are poor, watermen are poorer," one longtime waterman quipped. But some Calvert County oystermen/women are ready to try growing what they're used to simply harvesting. Three years ago, their association began partnering with Morgan State University's Estuarine Research Center in Saint Leonard to grow spat-on-shell oysters. Today's planting marks a project milestone: the first oysters spawned, reared and "set" (attached to shell) entirely at the research center's new hatchery.

Smaller than the toenails on Dean's 10-month-old daughter, the baby oysters have led a coddled life. Spawned from Patuxent brood stock, the larval oysters (conventional diploids) were nurtured by marine biologists. They grew up in indoor, temperature-controlled tanks where they sipped filtered river water enriched with strains of algae imported from a lab in Connecticut. Now, having settled into new homes on old shell that's been cleaned and prepped for them, the baby bivalves will take their chances in a river not always hospitable to their species. Fifty to 60 percent will likely survive. 

Dean squints at her depthsounder as Rough Water enters a shallow creek where two other crews are already scattering their oysters. Positioning her boat near them, she and three helpers begin lifting the bags, stacked five deep in the cockpit, onto the washboards. Working quickly, they slit the bags open and dump the spat-flecked shells into the water. In less than 10 minutes, the bags are empty. Watermen have planted an estimated 1.5 million spat here in the last two days, says Tommy Zinn, watermen's association president. Now they must wait at least two years--more likely three--to see whether the babies grow "snappy" (skinny and long) or plump enough for the shucking house.

The expansion of sanctuaries will put more grounds off limits to tongers and dredgers like Dean and her husband, Simon. The state projects the commercial harvest will drop about seven percent in the 2010-2011 season, which begins October 1. Despite an "unusually good" harvest last season, the scenario has Dean worried. That, and the oil rig disaster that shut down fishing in the Gulf of Mexico for a while. If consumers balk at eating Gulf oysters, she wonders, will Southern seafood companies snare some of the 600,000 additional acres of aquaculture leases Maryland is proffering and hire local watermen to tend them? "For someone who works for herself that [prospect] is hard to swallow," she says. 

The Calvert County native teaches English at her alma mater, Patuxent High School, turns to crabbing and running fishing charters with her husband in the summer, then patent tonging part-time aboard Rough Water in the fall and winter. They bought the boat last year--another reason to worry about reduced income. 

It's hard to argue with the statistical rationale behind the governor's Oyster Restoration & Aquaculture Development Plan, which is designed to bring back these water-purifying filter-feeders and sustainably manage the population. According to the Department of Natural Resources, Maryland has lost 80 percent of its oyster bars, 80 percent of its oyster processing companies and 75 percent of its oyster harvesters since 1985, when diseases were severely depleting the fishery. Fewer than 500 watermen statewide still harvest oysters. 

The Deans realize oyster culture may be their best hope under the circumstances. "We're young enough [she's 29, he's 35] this is something we've got to try," she says. "It's the closest thing we have to keeping our traditions."

When Kelton Clark, director of Morgan State's Estuarine Research Center, and Mark Bundy, its environmental programs manager, devised a business plan to help restore Bay oysters, they made two stipulations: it had to be self-supporting (no public sector money) and it had to involve commercial fishermen. The university's hatchery is a working prototype, serving the purpose until a commercial operation can take its place. Clark believes aquaculture development is best served by competitive private hatcheries not Horn Point, whose publicly subsidized facility ends up deflating the market price for baby oysters.

 "If we're going to put oysters in the water we need to go where the money is and the money is in the private sector," Clark says. "Most important to us, [the program] has to support the coastal community. We want to do it in a way that maintains our society; that keeps Chesapeake Bay the Chesapeake Bay of watermen and skipjacks."

When Clark and Bundy approached the watermen's association about an oyster culture project, Zinn was skeptical, but he listened. "We were the first to step up and try it," he says. According to Zinn, about half of his members have participated in the spat-on-shell project. Two others have begun a private venture with Morgan State to culture oysters in bottom cages for the half-shell market. (These oysters set on "micro-cultch," microscopic pieces of shell on which they can grow individually.) On paper, the bottom cage venture looks to net watermen $7,000 annually for part-time work, the center's economists say. In practice, the watermen want proof that bottom culture works and isn't too labor-intensive.

Clark says he understands watermen's misgivings about a process that's alien to them and requires three years to yield a harvest. "We're saying, 'This is going to work, please come this way, you'll all be better in the end.' To their credit," he says, "they're hanging in there."

Where does aquaculture go now? Two extremes are unfolding at opposite ends of the Bay. In Baltimore, University of Maryland scientists have perfected a recirculating marine aquaculture system--in effect a self-contained saltwater ecosystem--to cultivate "clean" finfish indoors. The university's Department of Marine Biotechnology wants to commercialize the technique to grow contaminant-free branzini and sea bream for the restaurant trade. 

At the tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore, a private-public partnership is reintroducing a nearly extinct seafood--bay scallops--and restoring seagrass beds that shelter them. Disease and a powerful hurricane wiped out the ocean-side grasses (and with them the scallops) in the 1930s, eliminating a significant East Coast fishery. Hatchery-raised scallops have been planted in hopes they'll flourish and revive a sustainable population. If successful, says Barry Truitt, a biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Virginia, "it would be the first time a marine organism that's been extinct in an area for three-quarters of a century would be brought back." 

Not to mention we'd all eat a bit more divinely.