Adventures in Cage Culture
The Downs and Ups of Oyster Farming
Ted Cooney (center) and his partners bend their backs to hoist a cage of oysters onto the dock at Madhouse Oysters. Working with him are Scott Robinson Jr. (left) and his father, Scott Robinson Sr. (right). Photograph, Madhouse Oysters
IN APRIL 2012, TED COONEY GOT ONE MILLION OYSTERS in mesh bags the size of a cantaloupe and he told himself this oyster farming business was going to be easy. By Thanksgiving his back was a wreck. By Christmas he was thinking about quitting.
Cooney is lean and young-looking with graying hair, a graying beard, and a calm intensity, especially when he's talking about his latest adventure: trying to build an aquaculture company called Madhouse Oysters on a strip of land called Hooper's Island. As a businessman he did his due diligence, in this case a lot of research on gear and a lot of number crunching. And he was able, with some expert help, to figure out a system that should work. He had a plan.
The system he wanted to set up was still somewhat new in Maryland waters: he would pack oysters in cages for most of their growing time. The majority of oyster farmers in the state, however, still grow their oysters on shells spread on a leased piece of ground on the bottom of the Bay. But in recent years nearly half of the new farmers coming into the business are trying to do what Cooney is trying to do: put oysters in cages and floats and grow them in the water above the bottom.
Cooney began by buying bags of tiny, hatchery-spawned oysters, each about one millimeter in size. He would empty the bags into a tank and hold them there until they reached a inch. From there he piled them into floating upwellers, wooden platforms with wells for eight square tanks and a pump that pushed water up from the bottom, feeding in nutrients and turning tiny oysters into less-tiny oysters.
That's when his back began to give out. As his less-tiny oysters grew into small oysters, the upwellers would fill up, and mud would seep into the bottom. Hoisting an upweller heavy with oysters and river mud took two grown men and left a mark on each. "By the end of the day, you're worn out, your back is sore," says Cooney, "and the next day you get out of bed and you're hurting yourself in a way that you know you're not able to do this for years."
Hooper's Island has become a center for off-bottom oyster farming with the recent opening of two companies, both of which are trying high-tech approaches to growing oysters for the half-shell trade. Ted Cooney (top) founded Madhouse Oysters in 2012. And Johnny Shockley (bottom, holding oyster) teamed up with Ricky Fitzhugh in 2010 to co-found the Hooper Island Oyster Aquaculture Company. Photographs, Madhouse Oysters (top) and Jay Fleming (bottom)
If the upwellers didn't kill your back, the cages would. They were the next step in his system: they sat on his bottom lease, holding oysters about six inches above the mud. As his oysters sat in the river taking in more nutrients and becoming larger oysters, they kept filling up the cages, just as they had filled up the upwellers. Cooney had to keep hauling the cages up on to his boat so he could clean and sort and split the heavy loads off into separate cages. That first year he was working from a small 21-foot skiff, and every time he pulled a full cage up and over the transom, he hurt his back some more and nearly sank his boat.
Before long Cooney had 100 heavy cages in the water — and that's when he began to think about quitting.
Ted Cooney was not raised around watermen and oysters. He spent his younger years in other ventures in other places: hitchhiking around most of North America, serving in Africa with the Peace Corps, working in Alaska as a fisherman, learning wooden-boat building in England, and for eight years working as a yacht carpenter back in Maryland. Then for 20 years he was a partner in a company that provided health-care finance services, a job that put him behind a desk and bought him a waterfront home in Talbot County. It was the water view that came with the home that got him thinking about the oyster farming business. A small operation, he thought, something he could do with his kids. He wasn't looking for another adventure.
What sold him on the idea was a visit and boat ride with Johnny Shockley, a man who was raised as a waterman and had already made the move from oyster fishing to oyster farming. Shockley is burly and round-faced with a friendly, outgoing style, especially when he's talking about his own mid-career shift. It was his working, water-level view of a declining public oyster fishery that got him thinking about oyster farming. "I was either going to find some really cool thing to do within the industry," he says, "or I was going to get out."
As he went through his mid-life crisis and career shift, Shockley made a key decision: find a partner who was an experienced businessman. When he was able to link up with Ricky Fitzhugh, a seafood wholesaler, they began a new kind of oyster farming operation. They called it Hooper Island Oyster Aquaculture Company, and they set out to build a "really cool thing" by adopting techniques and gear not found in traditional oyster farming in Maryland.
Instead of planting shell and seed oysters on the bottom like most oyster farmers in Maryland, Shockley and Fitzhugh decided to work with some of the new technologies that were being tried in Virginia. They bought larvae or oyster seed from hatcheries and began putting them through downwellers and upwellers before setting them out in large metal cages. Along the way they found and bought or designed various mechanical gear for hoisting cages and tumbling and grading oysters at different steps along their growth path.
For Cooney, Shockley's operation was a revelation. He toured his plant and took a trip on the Chesapeake Gold, a boat Shockley had rigged with gear for hauling out cages and mechanically tumbling and sorting oysters. Cooney was hooked. "There's a big fat worm there and I swallowed it all the way to my stomach," he says. "From that point on I thought, well this is it, this is what I've got to do. And that was the place I needed to do it." After that epiphany he took out a second mortgage on his home and bought an out-of-business crab house on Hooper's Island just across the creek from Shockley's operation.
Hooper's Island seemed the right place for aquaculture. It's called an island, but Hooper's is actually an archipelago of three islands that dangle off the edge of Dorchester County, inserting a thin, crooked strip of land between the Honga River and the mainstem of Chesapeake Bay. Wherever you are on Hooper's, the island offers a water view to the east and, if you turn around, you get a water view to the west. The island also offers oyster growers certain key advantages: the salinity levels are high enough to lend good flavor to the oysters grown there, and the location is well isolated from the floods of oyster-stressing freshwater that can surge out of the Susquehanna River far to the north or out of the Potomac well off to the south.
Ted Cooney (above) with a few of the double-stack oyster cages he uses to hold oysters during their final growout sequences. Photograph, Madhouse Oysters; map, Sandy Rodgers and iStockphoto.com
Cooney's location was ideal and so was his timing. The state of Maryland in 2010 had launched ambitious programs designed to provide start-up funding and technical assistance to would-be oyster farmers. Loans would help. When Cooney did the math he realized that a million oysters would eventually require 500 to 700 cages and the price tag would run between $50,000 and $70,000. When he got two loans from MARBIDCO, the Maryland Agriculture and Resource-Based Industries Corporation, he discovered the loans could not be used to buy a truck or a boat, both of which he would need.
The loans, however, did help him get his first cages in the water. That left him with the problem of getting them out of the water. "By Thanksgiving I had a hundred cages in the water," he says. "And my back was wrecked and my mind was wrecked and I couldn't pick the cages up they were so full."
When the cold weather hit, the oysters slowed their growth, and Cooney had some time to think about his options. "I had basically four months to figure out if I was going to raise the white flag and quit," he says. "Or dive in deeper in some other way."
Was there another way? When Cooney made a list of reasons to quit oyster farming, it quickly reached two pages long. When he made a list of reasons to dive deeper, it had about three lines. One of the lines said: "Get a partner."
When he went looking for a partner, Shockley introduced him to a father/son team: Scott Robinson Sr., a fourth-generation waterman and his son, Scott Jr., a fifth-generation waterman. They already had the interest in oyster farming, but not the money to get started. Cooney had the money, and he'd already started spending it. "I'd gotten started and run out of steam," said Cooney, "so we partnered up." That brought in two more strong backs, a lot of work experience in the oyster business, and local connections.
Partners were one way to keep going. Cutting down on the backbreakers was another. Shifting into his problem-solving mode, Cooney rethought his system and decided to jettison the floating upwellers that were so heavy to lift. In their place he adapted and installed in the Honga River a technique invented in Australia, an adjustable long-line system that featured a series of lines, buoys, and floating baskets that could hold his tiny oysters along the surface until they grew large enough to go into one of his cages.
His new boat was another way to keep going, but it looked nothing like the yachts he used to work on. It was a workboat of his own design: a pair of pontoons, some connecting beams, a deck — "it looked like a floating tennis court" — and then a roof made from the cover for an in-ground swimming pool. The result, he admitted, was "certainly the ugliest boat on the Bay." But it was flat and stable, a workspace that he could load with gear that would save his aging back. He put in a conveyor, tumbler, grader, and a hydraulic rig with a big hook and block that could hoist his cages and swing them aboard.
To grow small oysters big enough to go into large cages, Cooney uses an Australian Adjustable Long-Line system. It features floating baskets hooked on lines and supported by buoys that hold oysters near the surface during this intermediate growth stage. Photograph, Madhouse Oysters
With the new lift, his 15-year-old daughter can now haul the cages. With his ugly boat Cooney claims he and his crew can work more cages in a day than anybody on any other boat. Maybe some day soon Tidewater seafood festivals with their popular workboat contests for watermen will have competitions for oyster farmers.
That first year, Cooney saw most of his crop die, and it took a year and a half to rework his system and get it up to speed. Losing oysters, he's discovered, is a normal part of the farming business. "For cage culture people," he says, "if you get 50 percent to the finish line, then you're doing pretty well." By 2015, he was doing well enough to sell about 250,000 oysters, packing them in 100-count boxes and charging high prices for a high-quality product. Now he's got four million oysters in his baskets and cages and should soon be selling a million oysters. That, at least, is the plan.
As oyster farming evolves in Maryland, Cooney and Shockley may or may not prove to be models for other farmers in the future. But there are perhaps some interesting lessons about what it takes to start up successful, off-bottom oyster farms. It takes money of course, whether from savings, private investments, or state-supported loan programs. But the money seems less important than other things: energy, ambition, the ability to find partners, the flexibility to alter course, and a sense of adventure.
Some of that energy seems to come from a sense of social mission. At the Hooper Island Oyster Aquaculture Company, Shockley and Fitzhugh say they want to build a business that will work with other growers, in part because new companies create work in a region which has lost jobs and people as a result of declining harvests in the traditional oyster and blue crab fisheries. It's also good business for Shockley and Fitzhugh: they also sell equipment to other growers. And they've developed markets that range from high-end restaurants, seafood sellers, and Whole Foods stores to individual oyster lovers who can go online and order a shipment. "We're ready to bust this thing out," says Shockley. "We need oyster growers, we need product."
According to Cooney, oyster farming, if done right, can create not just jobs but careers. "It's a lot of brutal hard work," he says, looking back on the struggles of his first year. "But if you can think through the processes and try to design them so they're easier and you're using machinery rather than brute strength, then you can have a workforce that can expect to make this their career. So that's what we're after. We're after young guys who like the idea of oyster farming, who know that I'm not going to wreck their backs and send them down the road after two years."
Social mission has been a long-term issue with Cooney. When he worked in Africa with the Peace Corps, he saw young people losing their chances at a better life, in part because their villages lacked drinking water. Every day young boys and girls make long treks to find drinking water and then carry it back home. Instead of sitting in school learning to read, they spend hours each day trudging up and down a dusty road. It's a problem you don't forget, especially if you like solving problems. His solution: drilling wells in the village for drinking water. That's not an original idea — but this idea is: his oyster farming company plans on spending five percent of its profits to get wells drilled in some of the villages he saw years ago.
He's already hooked up with a well driller, Kenny Wood from the Eastern Shore, who spends part of each year drilling wells in African villages. In December 2015, Cooney's company wrote its first check to Wood. You can call that charity or a sense of social mission — but it's also a chance to feed an old itch for adventure. Cooney figures the well driller will need a helper. And he has his passport ready.