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The Chesapeake Bay is America’s largest estuary, with a watershed that spans 64,000 square miles, touching on six states. It’s an economic engine to two of those states, a source of food for many and close to the hearts of millions. Five public radio organizations—WYPR in Baltimore, Virginia Public Radio, Delmarva Public Radio at Salisbury University, Delaware Public Media and WESM at The University of Maryland Eastern Shore are collaborating to produce reports examining a broad spectrum of issues affecting the Bay and its watershed. Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative is funded with grant support from the Clayton Baker Trust, The Bancroft Foundation, Michael and Ann Hankin, The Jim and Patty Rouse Foundation, The Rob and Elizabeth Tyler Foundation, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.

First State lags behind Maryland, Virginia in oyster aquaculture

While you finish up leftovers from that Thanksgiving turkey, here’s something else to think about this time of year; oysters. Fat, juicy Chesapeake Bay oysters. Five years ago, if you had a Maryland oyster – it was most likely caught wild by a commercial waterman. Now, it’s increasingly likely those oysters are farm raised.

As part of our with WYPR in Baltimore , Virginia and Delmarva Public Radio and WESM – WYPR’s Joel McCord joins us this week to tell us  that Maryland’s oyster aquaculture program has mushroomed since 2010.  It still has a way to go to catch up with Virginia, but is well ahead of  the one here in the First State – which hasn’t gotten off the ground.

On a foggy November morning Patrick Hudson’s crew is poking boat hooks in the waters of St. Jerome Creek, searching for the line that’s connected to the cage that’s loaded with thousands of young oysters.

Soon enough, they find it, hook it onto a winch, and fire up a diesel engine to haul the cage on board.  These are young oysters, planted just last April and quickly outgrowing their cage.

"So, yeah, pretty soon this is going to be too full," said Hudson.

Hudson sells about a million oysters a year from his farm in St. Mary’s County. He is one of hundreds who applied for leases to grow oysters in Maryland waters after the administration of then Gov. Martin O’Malley began pushing the program in 2010.

Karl Roscher, head of the aquaculture division at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says most of the existing leases were dormant at the time. But since then, the state has received more than 300 lease applications. Some of those were withdrawn…

"But the department has permitted over 150 new lease applications. Currently we have 352 leases in the state of Maryland that are active," said Roscher.

Oysters, which filter water and reduce nutrient and sediment pollution, have dwindled to one percent of their historic numbers in Chesapeake Bay. Roscher says the revitalized leasing program was aimed at reversing that trend.

"Absolutely," said Roscher.  "Environmental benefits associated with shellfish aquaculture and or economic growth in our rural communities and an opportunity for commercial watermen to produce oysters through private methods. "

Hudson was working as a paralegal at Washington law firm when he got into the business in 2011

"I started out just kind of as a hobby and uh, just really interested in oyster aquaculture and I thought it was really neat that you could grow something that was beneficial to the environment and hopefully make some money while you’re doing it," said Hudson.

Bobby Leonard had a number of those dormant leases, one on the Tred Avon River and another here on Edge Creek, south of St. Michaels. He says he “lost interest” in the late 90s, after the diseases Dermo and MSX devastated his crop.

"I mean, you got a tremendous expense there and a lot of labor and you know, when you, year after year, you go there and you see them all dead it really takes the fun out of it," said Leonard.

Then about four or five years ago he got a letter from the state warning him he’d lose his leases if he didn’t start growing oysters again. So, he got some shells from Harris Seafood on Kent Narrows, baby oysters—spat—from the state lab at Horn Point and went to work.

He even took on an additional lease where no oysters had grown before.

"It was just plain, hard bottom. Not a shell on it. I planted a lot of stuff from Horn Point here, spat on shell. I put a lot of shell over here this year," said Leonard.

It turned out well, he says. He took a lot of oysters off that lease and more off his other leases; thousands of bushels. And he sells them all to Harris Seafood.

Oysters come into Harris by the trailer truck load from all over the bay. Some are packaged for shipment right away and others wind up in the shucking room, a long, narrow space with a table running down the middle. Shuckers stand on either side, prying open the shells, carefully slicing the muscles and dropping the meat into stainless steel buckets.

Those bivalves will become the makings for fried oysters and oyster stew.

Jason Ruth, co-owner of the business, says he used to do pretty well during the Maryland’s public oyster season, October through March. But once that season closed, he had to scramble to find oysters, bringing them in from Texas and Florida to satisfy their customers.

"In order to keep these customers close to us so we could have them again for the next season we kind of gave the product away and we had inferior product and it kind of took us out of the market," said Ruth.

But, he says, things have changed over the last five years as Maryland has been pushing aquaculture.

"We’ve been able to secure contracts with certain lease holders, buy their product throughout the year and then we can kind of tell our customers we can almost foresee into the future and say, hey, you know, at this particular date off season I can give you this particular price because I have the product available," said Ruth.

Nonetheless, Maryland’s program can’t come close to Virginia’s, where they’ve been leasing bay bottom to shellfish farmers since the 1890s. John Bull, that state’s commissioner of marine resources, says they have 5,000 leases covering 121,000 acres.

"While Maryland is struggling and has been for a number of years to find a way and to resolve user conflict on the use of the water bottoms, this had been well established under Virginia policy for more than a century,” said Bull.

Last year, Virginia’s shellfish farmers harvested 357,000 bushels of oysters. At about $50 a bushel, that’s almost $18 million dockside value and a total economic impact in the range of $35 million.

Meanwhile, Delaware is struggling to start an aquaculture program in its inland bays. The state legislature adopted a measure in 2013 to revitalize an aquaculture program that had died out in the 1970s and state regulators applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the necessary permits about a year ago.

And not much has happened since, says John Ewart, the aquaculture and fisheries specialist for Delaware’s Sea Grant program.

"It’s not unusual for things to take a long period of time, but we’re in month 13 and counting right now and the state of Delaware can’t implement any of its leasing plans until the Corps weighs in on the subject," said Ewart.

Back on St. Jerome Creek, Patrick Hudson’s crew continues to sort through the cages. He says he chose the spot for his True Chesapeake Oyster Company because he was so taken with the beauty of the place. That and he met John Lore, whose family had been in the seafood business in Southern Maryland since the late 19th century.

"And he told me that there used to be millions of oysters out here that really had a great taste. And when I came here there were no oysters," said Hudson. "Now, there are you know, several million out here on our farm. So, you know. We’ve made a lot of progress."

And yes, those oysters do have a great taste.