For almost 50 years, government officials, conservationists, and watermen have sought solutions to restore the Chesapeake Bay – including its once heralded oyster industry. While not always in agreement on strategy and tactics, they continued to invest valuable public resources in oyster restoration efforts.
The outcomes ranged from negligible impact to limited success. Overall, the needle measuring Bay health and oyster production hasn’t moved much further from where it was in 1972, when the Clean Water Act was passed.
I believe it’s time for a new approach. One that revives our public fisheries, creates economic opportunities for watermen, and preserves the Chesapeake’s heritage.
I am confident that the answer lies in oyster aquaculture. Oyster farming cleans waters. It repairs eco-systems. It creates jobs. It revives local economies. If we adopt aquaculture as a significant restoration strategy, oyster farming can – and will – be the Chesapeake’s new growth industry.
As a waterman and oyster entrepreneur, I have witnessed the power and potential for aquaculture to fundamentally transform a dying industry into a thriving economic engine.
Under the leadership of Donald Webster, chairman of the state’s Aquaculture Coordinating Council, Maryland reformed its laws to permit more private shellfish cultivation. In the past eight years, the Department of Natural Resources has approved 394 leases covering 6,455 acres.
In Dorchester County alone – home to the Hoopers Island Oyster Co. – more than 2,400 acres are now farmed, including the 350 acres my partner Ricky Fitzhugh and I lease in Tar and Fishing bays to raise our signature Chesapeake Gold oysters.
According to a recent article in the Bay Journal, public fisheries yielded 224,000 bushels of oysters in Maryland during the 2016/2017 season, a 42% drop from the previous year. In comparison, Maryland oyster farmers grew 65,000 bushels – a 29% increase. If these trends continue, farm raised oysters could easily surpass those harvested in the wild here by 2020.
Look no further than our neighboring state along our borderless Bay. In Virginia – where oyster farming has thrived for 100 years – farm raised oysters already surpass those caught in the wild.
The economic and environmental benefits of a thriving aquaculture and oyster industry in the U.S. are on display every day in the Pacific Northwest. In Washington State, oyster farming is a half a billion-dollar industry and employs 1,500 people.
I see a day soon when the Chesapeake once again leads the world in oyster production. But to get there, we must change our approach and offer watermen and commercial farmers the same meaningful economic incentives and policies afforded to other industries.
This could include expansion of leasable waters; start-up grants and low interest loans for equipment, seed and job training; direct oyster replenishment contracts for watermen; rotational and sustainable harvests in pubic oyster beds; and carbon credits for oyster production.
In January, NOAA’s retiring regional administrator John Bullard wrote, “Aquaculture is much more than food production. Around the nation, scientists are studying how shellfish farming can benefit local ecosystems and water quality, energy agencies are exploring farming algae as a source of biofuel, and seaweed farmers are fighting ocean acidification with their crops.”
Bullard is correct. The environmental benefits he writes about will also transform local economies by promoting small business enterprise, creating jobs, and sustaining the long-term viability of oyster farms up and down the Bay.
I invite you to join the revolution. Become an aquaculture entrepreneur and discover the ecological and business benefits of oyster farming, the watermen’s way.
Johnny Shockley is a founding partner of the Hoopers Island Oyster Co. A third-generation waterman from Fishing Creek Maryland, Johnny regularly consults with watermen, conservationists, government agencies and shellfish growers on how aquaculture can create a sustainable oyster industry in the U.S. and around the world.