ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Some of Maryland’s best farm land won’t grow a single bud or sprout. Some of it is muddy, sandy land under the Chesapeake Bay because that is where the oyster grows.
Oysters are traditionally tonged or dredged during the winter months and grow wild in the Chesapeake Bay and nearby rivers. They are usually harvested in colder months — months ending in the letter “r” — because the oysters spawn in warm weather and can taste milky. Cold weather also helps keep them fresh and prevents spoiling.
Aquaculture is on the rise in Maryland and much of that consists of growing oysters. Oysters are placed in mesh cages and then put in the water to grow until they reach market size. The Maryland Farm Bureau Winter Webinar Series focused on aquaculture on Tuesday, Jan. 5.
Webinar speakers said oysters clean the bay because they are filter feeders that filter gallons of water daily — some estimates are up to 40 gallons daily per oyster. The cages also provide habitat, just like oyster reefs do in the wild, by attracting algae, snails and other small plants and animals. They provide shelter for small crabs and fish in what is often relatively bare bay bottom with little habitat.
Aquaculture also provides jobs
Hollywood Oyster Co. owner Tal Petty said “we’re like any farmer.”
“You are a farmer too, but your farm is underwater,” said University of Maryland Extension educator Don Webster.
Any seafood lover knows oysters are valuable. There have been oyster wars and oyster pirates in Maryland and Virginia history as people fought over the valuable oyster grounds.
In 1868, Maryland founded the Maryland Oyster Police Force, nicknamed the Oyster Navy, to deal with the disputes, although they were at times outgunned by more heavily armed watermen. The group was the predecessor of the modern Maryland Natural Resources Police.
The shotguns have, fortunately, been put away and disputes have taken a different turn. Speakers said conflicts are now more likely to be between waterfront landowners and people leasing waters to grow oysters with aquaculture. Petty described the conflicts as “not in my backyard” disputes.
Landowners sometimes worry about property vales, access, view, noise and safety in what can be a very delicate balancing act.
Petty said there is no evidence that property values decrease. He said noise is infrequent and view is subjective, but concerns do persist. He said most people find the process interesting.
“It’s kind of cool to have an oyster farm,” he said.
Colby Ferguson of the Maryland Farm Bureau said legislation over issues like views could become “a slippery slope.”
It was clearly a topic that concerned the speakers and the Maryland General Assembly may consider the issue this spring. A hearing is set for Feb. 25 that could require the Department of Natural Resources to consider conflict resolution between shoreline landowners and those seeking aquaculture leases.
Some of the old-style disputes also still remain. Rachel Dean of Patuxent River Seafood said they marked aquaculture grounds with buoys, but theft was sometimes still a problem.
Bureaucratic issues can also complicate the sometimes thorny issue of leased space. In Dean’s case, an issue with oyster density caused a leased size area to be cut in half from 24 to 12 acres.
Webster noted that leased areas can still be used by the public for boating, bird watching and fishing. The public just isn’t allowed to remove oysters or damage gear in those areas, he said.
The industry may also soon be the beneficiary of some of the advances used by traditional farmers like robotics and drone use.
One speaker said the University of Maryland Robotics Center is looking at the use of drones to monitor oyster growth.
Ferguson said the USDA has a $10 million project over five years to develop robotic technology for bottom lease production.
“We need to do better,” Ferguson said about utilizing technology in aquaculture.