Back to the Future
Reviving the Ghost Farms of the Nanticoke
Bamboo poles and a small sign mark the corner of a bottom lease where an oyster farmer is growing oysters in the Nanticoke River. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
ERIC WISNER SEEMS, AT FIRST GLANCE, to be going nowhere. On a mild, windless October day, he is steering his boat in endless circles out in the middle of the Nanticoke River. His boat is a converted, stripped-down houseboat, and he's using it to drag a dredge across a long-deserted, underwater oyster farm where, once upon a time, somebody spent money trying to grow oysters — and eventually gave up.
Wisner, however, is not giving up on oyster farming. Today he is trying to cash in on a bet he made last year. That's when he shelled out $300 to apply for a lease from the state of Maryland to work these abandoned acres on the bottom of the Nanticoke. A friendly, talkative 46-year old, Wisner sports a reddish beard and a ready smile, and he seems happy to be out here driving his boat in circles. When his wife asked him why he was going out today, he told her what he tells me: "Hunting for a vein of Chesapeake gold," he says with a laugh, "an old vein of Chesapeake gold."
The gold he's hunting may have been left behind by the pioneers who gave up oyster farming leases on these acres more than 30 years ago. That means for decades now nobody has planted new shell on the bottom, nobody has planted seed oysters on top of that shell. Wisner knows that, but he has several hunches he wants to test.
His first hunch: perhaps there's still a lot of old shell and a firm bottom down there. If so, he can plant seed oysters here in the future. His second hunch: perhaps there are still some live oysters down there he can harvest and sell.
Perhaps, on the other hand, he just threw away his $300.
There are a number of ghost farms like this scattered along the bottom of the Nanticoke. Bordered mostly by marshes and woodlands, the river is one of the loveliest and least populated on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and for decades it was one of the few places where oyster growers did well — at least for a while — during the long era when the state did not encourage the farming of oysters on private leases along the bottom of the Bay.
For more than a century and a half, any stretch of Bay bottom in Maryland that held oysters was protected as public oyster grounds and reserved for harvesting by watermen with hand tongs, dredges, and diving suits. Would-be oyster growers who wanted to lease Bay bottom were stymied by state laws that limited the size and number of private leases, and those who managed to get leases were often robbed by poachers and pirates who helped themselves to an oyster crop other people had planted — and did so with impunity.
But along the Nanticoke, a number of pioneer oyster farmers found ways to work around legal restrictions and illegal poachers. They applied for as many leases as they could under the laws, and then got their family, friends, and neighbors to apply for more. Everyone kept an eye out for any poaching on their neighbors' plots, and some farmers even hired guards to patrol the grounds. By 1980 the Nanticoke River held 25 percent of all the private oyster leases in Maryland waters.
Oyster farming in that era was mostly low-tech bottom culture. Growers planted their leases with shucked shell and made a bet that spawning by local oysters would create a lot of oyster larvae floating in the water and that would lead to an abundant natural set of new oysters on their shell beds. On the Nanticoke for many years, it was a bet worth making. When they could afford it, growers purchased and planted seed oysters, shells already dotted with tiny oyster spat. Most of this spat-on-shell came from the great beds of seed oysters in the James River in Virginia.
Many farmers would plant more than a million seed oysters per acre and harvest more than 500 bushels of market-ready oysters per acre, reports Don Webster, a Maryland Sea Grant Extension specialist who analyzed a 1979 survey of growers in the state. Some farmers reported harvests above 1,500 bushels per acre. An aquaculture advocate named Max Chambers even built a small hatchery along the Nanticoke where he spawned oysters, collected larvae, and created his own spat-on-shell for planting in the river.
The result? "Maryland had a huge aquaculture industry 30 years ago" says Mike Naylor, "despite attempts by the commercial oystermen's legislators to slow it down." Naylor was the state official who signed off on lease applications, and in his opinion the aquaculture success story in the Nanticoke region has been largely missed by journalists and historians. "Aquaculture in Maryland is growing quickly right now," he says, "But it will be a long time until we reach the level of aquaculture production that existed in the early 1980s."
A recent convert to oyster farming, Eric Wisner surveys the shuttered, vacant buildings of the once-busy seafood packing company run by H.B. Kennerly and his son. For decades, their various companies bought oysters from farmers who grew them on private leases and from watermen who fished them off the public grounds. They shucked oysters year round, shipping them to cities in the south and west and supplying local farmers with the shucked shell they could plant on bottom leases along the Nanticoke and Wicomico Rivers. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
Eric Wisner kicks his winder motor into gear and begins winching up a dredge load of stuff off the bottom of the Nanticoke River. He's hoping the stuff in the dredge includes some live oysters, a vein of old gold that's been waiting down there. "It's the first day," he says. "Got no idea what's here."
The load lands with a splatting thud on his metal culling board and Wisner begins to get a good idea about what these ghost acres hold. He and his two-man crew start sorting through what appears to be a pile of old shells, all dark and dripping and mottled with tan clots of something that may be sea squirts — at least that's the best guess that his crew, after some discussion, can come up with.
He's working with crew members today who carry in their heads a lot of history about the river. Mike Lindemon is a gray-bearded 66-year-old who remembers diving under the winter ice for oysters back when underwater visibility reached 30 feet or more. He sorts through this mess of empty, sharp-edged shells and when he finds a live oyster — and there are only a few in this pile — it's usually stuck to an old shell. He flips the clump to Bill Denherder, who whacks it with a hammer-like measuring tool and keeps whacking until he's sculpted a clean, shapely oyster. This he tosses into a bushel basket behind him.
Denherder can deliver a strong whack. He's a big man, nearly 6 feet 4 inches tall and all of 69 years old, with a deep voice and a long memory. As he hammers oysters he talks about the years when you could make a good living on the Nanticoke — and the years when you could not. You could oyster on the public grounds in winter, go gill netting for rockfish, then work your private oyster leases in April and May until blue crabs showed up. "Back in those days," he says, "you could crab 24 hours a day, seven days a week — if you could stand it."
Oysters, however, were always the key option. Denherder worked his own leases back then: 60 acres worth of bottom where he usually harvested oysters in the spring before the blue crabs showed up. "Oysters used to be king on the Nanticoke," says Denherder, hammering at a clump of shells.
Another dredge load arrives with another thud — and with it comes a memento from those earlier days. Reaching into the wet pile, Denherder extracts an old black work glove that's been stuck on the bottom tangled in a pile of shells for years. When he holds it up we can see a small oyster stuck tightly on the glove, a spat that's grown into a two-year oyster with a fully formed shell.
It is an arresting image, this black rubber glove: it was most likely lost by a farmer who once stood right about here on this river, riding another boat, working another culling board in another era. This long-gone grower sorted through oysters and shells with his black-gloved hands, only to lose his glove and eventually give up his lease and whatever hopes he had of making a living off the river. On his lost glove the finger tips are now jagged holes, ripped open by old shells and rotted by time.
Eric Wisner (above, left) and Bill Denherder unload a bushel basket of oysters harvested off one of Wisner's bottom leases in the Nanticoke River. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
At moments like this the Nanticoke seems a haunted river. Every day when Wisner and his crew motor out to work these leases, they pass another ghostly memento of better days: a deserted shucking house and fish-packing center that was once the beating heart of the region's seafood industry. This was the home site for a number of businesses operated by the H.B. Kennerly & Son Company for half a century. This is where those early growers came to get the shells they needed to plant their underwater farms. This is where they came to sell the oysters they managed to harvest. But what Wisner now sees every workday morning is something sad: a sprawling collection of crumbling wooden buildings that stand locked and vacant, looming over the entrance to Nanticoke's town harbor.
If there's a ghost haunting these empty, echoing buildings, it would be Harold B. Kennerly Jr., a grower and entrepreneur who helped so many oyster farmers do well in this river. For decades the younger Kennerly ran a business that could buy and shuck and ship oysters across the country, and he did it all year round. During winter season he bought oysters from watermen who tonged and dredged the public grounds. Many of those watermen also had bottom leases and they used them to store some of their winter catch of wild oysters, waiting for prices to rise. Once their season ended, Kennerly bought product from them (at higher prices now) and from those farmers who cultivated private leases. He also harvested the many private leases he and his family and his workers had acquired along both the Nanticoke and the nearby Wicomico River.
As a result he became the largest employer in the county. To keep his plant humming, he also developed markets for breaded clam strips and breaded squid strips, and four times a year he even brought up shiploads of frozen tuna from South America to be canned and sold to markets in the northeastern U.S. But mostly he kept his workers busy shucking and packing oysters and loading them onto tractor-trailer trucks. Stacked with canned oysters from these quiet Eastern Shore rivers, those trucks rumbled down the two-lane roads of Wicomico County for decades, headed for big-city markets around the country.
Oysters were king — and suddenly they weren't. In the mid-1980s, two diseases, MSX and Dermo, swept through the mid Chesapeake and year after year killed oysters before they could reach market size. "It wasn't a one-time thing," says Denherder. "It was killing everybody." Like all the watermen and growers he knew, Denherder no longer had healthy oysters to sell to Kennerly. And the plant no longer had shucked shells to sell to the farmers.
Wisner designed his own workboat by converting an abandoned houseboat he found half sunk in a nearby harbor. He stripped away most of the house structure and added a culling board, a crossbar framework, and mast. The result: a wide, stable platform for power dredging and hauling oysters off his bottom leases. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham; map, Sandy Rodgers and iStockphoto.com
After the oyster calamity hit, the rockfish calamity arrived. In 1985 the state of Maryland declared rockfish "a threatened species" and enforced a complete moratorium on the catching, selling, and buying of rockfish. The two calamities turned watermen and oyster growers into endangered species. "That only left crabbing," Denherder says, "And you can't make a living just crabbing."
Denherder, at least, had another option: a land job. He turned his workboat over to his son and focused on installing heating and air conditioning systems for industrial clients. "The water was always either feast or famine," he says. When famine came, Denherder did what so many growers did: he gave up his leases and let his underwater acres become a ghost farm.
As his crewmates sort and hammer through another shell pile, Wisner swings his dredge overboard and checks his location using a variety of tools: his high-tech GPS, his depth finder, and his no-tech bamboo pole. Before he drops his dredge he leans over and starts poking at the bottom with his pole. When he starts tapping hard shell, he drops his dredge to the bottom, spins his steering wheel, and starts carving yet another wide circle through this abandoned oyster lease.
This is a fairly easy day for the crew. The work falls into a relaxed rhythm: Wisner drags the dredge in a circle, his crew sorts through each load, picks out a couple oysters, and sweeps the remaining mess overboard. Halfway through the morning, he has filled up four plastic bushel baskets with oysters. At $38 a bushel, that puts him halfway to covering the $300 he spent on the lease.
Wisner is not just scavenging this ghost lease for leftover oysters; he's also testing out this patch of bottom to figure out whether it's worth cultivating next year. That might mean firming up the bottom with more shell and other substrate and planting seed oysters that he could harvest three years later. If this ghost farm is worth the investment, he would add it to his inventory of working leases. That inventory now includes 42 leases covering more than 1,000 acres of bottom in the Nanticoke and the Wicomico Rivers.
Oyster farming is clearly reviving along these rivers, and the revival is being driven in part by the state's decision to encourage rather than discourage aquaculture entrepreneurs like Wisner. In 2009 historic legislation introduced by then-Governor Martin O'Malley swept away the long-standing restrictions that for a century and more limited the size and number of private leases.
The state did more than remove old barriers to aquaculture: it helped oyster farmers get started. It provided low-cost loan programs, training workshops, and technical assistance to help farmers apply for leases and loans, get surveys of their lease grounds, prepare bottom areas for cultivation, and learn to use current aquaculture techniques.
Teaching those techniques were Maryland Sea Grant Extension specialists who worked with local growers and operated the oyster hatchery at the Horn Point Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. In collaboration with the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership, Extension specialists organized workshops showing growers how to create their own seed oysters by putting hatchery-spawned larvae into setting tanks located on land near their lease grounds. Hatcheries and setting tanks would become essential innovations for the future for oyster farming in the Chesapeake.
Don Meritt holds a workshop for would-be oyster farmers, demonstrating how to distribute hatchery-spawned oyster larvae in a remote setting tank. The tank holds shucked shells which the larvae will settle on and attach, creating spat-on-shell that farmers can plant on their bottom leases in the Chesapeake Bay. The result — about three years later — should be market-size oysters. Meritt, a Sea Grant Extension specialist, first imported this technique from the West Coast in 1982. In recent years it has become the mainstay of the new surge in oyster farming in Maryland. Photograph, Maryland Sea Grant Extension
The future had already arrived in the region decades earlier. Back in 1982 Don Meritt and Don Webster hauled two large tanks down to the town of Nanticoke's harbor and set them up on the shore alongside the rambling white buildings of the busy Kennerly seafood plant. These Maryland Sea Grant Extension staff were starting a program to teach local growers and would-be growers how they could create their own seed oysters by working with a new technique called "remote setting."
At the Kennerly site, they installed a pump to fill the tanks with river water and a blower to keep the water circulating and then began working with local growers to clean piles of shucked shell that would go into the tanks. For easy handling they packed the shell into plastic containers and lowered the containers into the tanks. Then they opened small bags full of dark soggy stuff. It looked like mud but this mud was made up of millions of oyster larvae that had been spawned in a hatchery. Meritt and Webster and their growers spread the larvae in the tanks where they were supposed to find a friendly shell, glue themselves in place, and become spat-on-shell. Then they waited.
This remote setting technique came from the U.S. West Coast where Don Meritt had visited and worked with a number of well-established growers in Washington state, probing them to learn the keys to their success. The advantages of this West Coast technique were obvious for growers along the Nanticoke. Instead of waiting and hoping for good years of natural spawning and spat set by wild oysters in the river, they could get oyster larvae from a hatchery. And spat set could happen in tanks set up at remote locations near the rivers where the growers had their leases. Growers would not have to haul truckloads of seed oysters from hatcheries or bring boatloads up from the James River. They could simply carry small packets of hatchery-spawned oyster larvae and unleash them in setting tanks.
At one point Extension staff put a tank on a trailer, complete with a pump and a blower and drove their "spat mobile" into four other counties, teaching the technique to other growers along Maryland's Eastern Shore. Aquaculture, despite all the legal limitations on leasing, seemed to have a future.
That future died when Dermo and MSX came alive again. In 1985 these parasitic diseases exploded in the rivers and mainstem of the Bay, creating ghost farms along these rivers, bringing the travels of the spat mobile to an end, and shutting down those ambitious Extension programs that were trying to train the next generation of oyster farmers. Remote setting had been an idea ahead of its time.
Eric Wisner was 16 when those disease outbreaks devastated oyster farming in Maryland waters and he was 40 years old when the future came alive again. In 2010 state agencies launched a historic effort to finally enable and revive and expand oyster farming. He was running a firewood business at the time, but he quickly tried every new state aquaculture program. He applied for leases and loans and when Meritt and Webster once again brought tanks back to Nanticoke several years ago, he began showing up at their workshops and signing up for setting time at their tanks.
The old Kennerly plant was closed by then, but oyster farming was about to bloom again along his old river. Remote setting was an idea whose time had finally come. Hatcheries and remote setting tanks are, in fact, the basic building blocks for most of the new aquaculture options being tried along the rivers and shorelines of the Chesapeake Bay.
Wisner, at least, saw setting tanks as a key to his future. When he could start buying his own tanks, he tried setting up his first one in the back of a pickup truck lined with plastic. "You don't need much more than a kiddie pool," he says now, "It might hold ten bushels of shell. You just put less larvae in there." Next he got bigger tanks and tried setting them up in the backyard of his mother's house down at the end of Nanticoke Road. When she started fussing about his truck and trailer leaving tracks in her yard, he had to go looking for other options.
Along this river the future of aquaculture looks a lot like the past. In many rivers in Maryland the new aquaculture is trying to go high-tech, with growers signing up for water-column leases so they can put oysters in floats along the surface or in bags hanging from longlines in the water or in metal cages that sit just above the bottom. You can find options like these along the Choptank and the Honga up in Dorchester County and along the Patuxent and the Potomac and other rivers and creeks on the western shore. Along the Nanticoke, however, the new aquaculture is old-school: there are 64 active leases in the river, all of them bottom leases. No cages, no floats, no long-lines.
Along the Nanticoke River, the new aquaculture is old-school: there are 64 active leases in the river, all of them bottom leases. No cages, no floats, no long-lines.
There is, however, plenty of energy and creativity and low-tech innovation. When Wisner needed a workboat for dredging his grounds, he made his own. He found a houseboat sitting half sunk at Whitehaven harbor up along the Wicomico. He refloated the wreck, hacked away the house frame, and added a high metal crossbar near the bow, a mast with a winch, and a motor and winder for pulling the dredge.
When he needed a workboat for hauling shell and substrate materials, he found another houseboat and reconfigured it also. When he wanted a faster, easier way to dump his material on his lease bottom, he got a chicken manure spreader from a farmer and mounted the contraption on the front of his boat.
The state of Maryland is making a small bet on Eric Wisner by providing a few loans. He is already paying them back, but small loans add up, and so do large loans that are going out for high-tech forms of farming. They add up to a huge and historic bet on the future of oyster farming. One bet is that the money will come back to the state in the form of successful, tax-paying businesses, many of them putting people back to work in less populated Tidewater areas no longer well supported by harvests fished off the diminishing natural oyster reefs.
The state seems to be winning its bet on Eric Wisner. With his energy and smarts, his low-cost strategies, and his 1,000 acres of bottom, Wisner seems to be king on the Nanticoke.
As he steers his self-made workboat back towards the Nanticoke harbor, Wisner starts counting his catch. "We got 3, 4, 6, 8, 10 bushels," he says. "At $38 a bushel there's $380."
That's not much of a haul compared to the 40 bushels he usually harvests from a day's dredging on his working leases. And that's not much of a payday compared to the $60 a bushel he gets during the summer.
But do the math: he's won the bet he made last year when he shelled out $300 to buy the lease rights to these abandoned acres. The real payoff is what he's learned: there's still a good heaping of shell and other substrate down there, a base he can build on next year when he fires up his remote setting tanks and starts making more seed oysters.
As he motors into the town harbor, he can see his tanks sitting up high on the bulkhead that lines the entrance to the boat basin. When his mother asked him to move his tanks out of her yard, he brought them here. He leased land on the site of the old abandoned shucking house that H.B. Kennerly used to run. Looking, as always, for a better, cheaper deal on the rent, he promised to keep the lawn mowed and the trash cleared away.
Then he installed his two tanks, large and round and tan, setting them right in front of all those sad, white, sagging buildings.
It looks like the perfect site: the old aquaculture and the new sitting side by side on the shores of the Nanticoke.