Seeding An Industry
How Maryland Sea Grant Extension helped develop oyster aquaculture
Mike McWilliams. Photograph, Rona Kobell
Mike McWilliams looks down at the waters above the oyster-ground leases his grandfather once worked in the Wicomico River, a Potomac River tributary. Now he raises oysters there himself, a participant in Maryland's growing aquaculture industry. Photograph, Rona Kobell

GROWING UP IN SOUTHERN MARYLAND, Mike McWilliams spent all the time he could fishing with his grandfather and cousins on the Wicomico River, a tributary of the Potomac. Every boy had his own skiff, or knew how to run one. In the summer, the boys followed Capt. Walter Saunders's lead and crabbed in the shallows close to the banks. In the winter, they would watch the hardy souls set out at dawn, headed downriver towards the Potomac, masts up, hoping to catch enough oysters to provide for their families until summer.

But under those placid Wicomico waters, Capt. Walter, as he was known to everyone, kept something special: millions of native Chesapeake Bay oysters, growing on fossilized shells. It was a relic of the old days when watermen could lease a patch of river bottom from the state of Maryland and try their hand at cultivating a private crop of a species that almost everyone else saw as one meant for a public fishery.

For most of the 20th century, obtaining oyster leases was nearly impossible in every Maryland tributary except the Nanticoke River, where a large oyster shucking and canning company operated. Watermen opposed leasing at every turn, arguing that it would open the Chesapeake to large corporate interests and put them out of business. They preferred the system they had, where the state planted shell and seeded beds at oystermen's request so they could harvest oysters during a limited season.

That changed in 2009, when the Maryland legislature allowed oyster leasing in every county. The law, though, would come with a stipulation that those who held on to leases needed to use them or lose them. Capt. Walter, who died the year before the law changed, had passed his crab license on to Mike McWilliams, his grandson. But Capt. Walter's oyster leases had remained unchanged; he hadn't seeded them in years.

"My uncle got the letter that they were going to take these things away. I said, 'No, don't let them go,'" McWilliams recalls. "When your family's been out there all this time, it's in your blood."

Today, McWilliams still glides his skiff along the river at the town of Chaptico, near where his grandfather lived. But now, under the surface, something new sits on Capt. Walter's old shell beds: hatchery-raised seed that McWilliams spread on 28 acres across five leases, that will grow into millions of market-sized oysters. With the price hovering between $50 and $70 for a bushel, Capt. Walter's leases will supplement the income McWilliams earns as a crabber, deer meat processor, and butcher.

Critical to developing the industry, McWilliams and other oyster farmers say, are two programs with connections to Maryland Sea Grant and its Extension program. The MARBIDCO program, a state loan fund, provides low-interest loans to prospective oyster farmers who can't obtain start-up capital through conventional means. And the remote-setting program, which Don Meritt, a Sea Grant Extension shellfish specialist, brought to Maryland from the U.S. West Coast nearly 40 years ago, teaches the farmers how to set their own larvae on oyster shells in large tanks on land, creating spat-on-shell they can then put in the Bay on substrate — usually beds of shell — to help them grow. Regional Extension Specialist Don Webster, based at the Wye Research and Education Center on the Eastern Shore, trains farmers in remote setting. Matt Parker, a Sea Grant business expert based in Clinton, helps oyster growers apply for the MARBIDCO loans and develop their business plans.

"He's been instrumental in assisting these leaseholders," said Karl Roscher, director of the Aquaculture and Business Development unit for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Many of the applicants don't have a familiarity with business plans."

Those tools have helped to build Maryland aquaculture from a handful of worked leases in 2012 to 6,500 acres under lease today, with an oyster harvest expanding from 1,000 bushels to nearly 65,000 bushels in 2016, according to Roscher. Today's oyster aquaculture fishery is worth about five million dollars, Roscher estimates. It's still a fraction of the wild harvest in Maryland, but in Virginia, oyster aquaculture has surpassed the public fishery, and Roscher says Maryland's is on pace to keep expanding.

The growth of oyster aquaculture in Maryland is good news for both oyster farmers like McWilliams and also an estuary like the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters, down to less than one percent of their historical abundance, filter the Chesapeake Bay's excess nutrients — particularly the nitrogen and phosphorus entering the nation's largest estuary from farm-field runoff, sewage treatment plants, and suburban development. Oyster reefs also create habitat for juvenile fish and other bottom-dwelling organisms that provide food for bigger fish. Oyster decline in the Chesapeake, the result of decades of overharvesting and two devastating diseases, is both an economic and an ecological heartbreak. But aquaculture can help turn the tide, at least a little bit.

"There's no way I could have gotten it started without the MARBIDCO loan and the remote setting program," McWilliams says. "There's just no way."

Karl Roscher. Photograph, Don Webster
Karl Roscher (left), of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, works with oyster farmer Bobbie Leonard at his remote setting tank. Leonard, like many oystermen, is involved in several water-related businesses. Photograph, Don Webster
MARBIDCO Saves the Day

Known mostly as a revolving loan fund for farm- and forestry-based businesses, the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corporation (MARBIDCO) has been a lifeline for oyster farmers.

At first, after the state made oyster aquaculture legal in every county, it gave priority to funding those who held a tidal fish license; the state was funding the program with federal money provided in 2008 to counteract economic losses watermen suffered from a crash in the blue crab population. Though some money is still earmarked for watermen, MARBIDCO has loaned to plenty of applicants who don't have licenses to crab or fish. Since 2011 the program reports it has approved more than 50 shellfish aquaculture loans totaling over three million dollars.

Mike McWilliams got one of the first loans, for $25,000, to buy shell, a mast, a rig, and an oyster dredge to work the Bay's bottom. Two years later, he borrowed $10,000 more for additional shell. Parker helped him write business plans that MARBIDCO required in the loan application. McWilliams also received in-kind training from Meritt and Webster in how to set the oysters on the shell.

The terms of MARBIDCO loans are far better than those of any conventional loan. They run five years; for the first three, the borrower pays only interest at 3.25 percent. If borrowers make all payments, MARBIDCO forgives 25 percent of the principal.

When everything goes well, about 30 percent of a farmer's oysters will reach the market size of three inches, though McWilliams prefers they get to four to maximize their ecological value. Usually, everything does not go well. In McWilliams's first year, so much rain fell on Southern Maryland that it washed out a bridge near Chaptico. Salinity levels, ideally between 10 and 22 parts per thousand for oyster growth, fell to just 4. McWilliams lost 90 percent of his crop that year.

For Parker, helping people apply for a MARBIDCO loan is the start of a larger conversation about business plans. He's advised several farmers in the region and is proud most of them remain in what is still a risky business and have started paying back their loans. He helps prospective farmers grapple with a series of questions. How much money do they need to make before taxes? How large a farm would they like? Would they sell directly to restaurants or go through wholesalers? Would they try culturing oysters on the Bay's bottom, as McWilliams does, versus growing them in cages that sit on the bottom, as other farmers do?

Besides business decisions, there is also the red tape. McWilliams avoided this snag by taking over his grandfather's leases, but many first-time oyster farmers endure months if not years of headaches navigating the bureaucracies of both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to obtain their oyster leases and permits. Certain choices can save lots of time, such as picking the right site and getting the community on board before submitting applications. Parker can put farmers in touch with state officials who can assist with that. "My view is that anyone can get into aquaculture, but if you don't have a plan to succeed, your success is going to be limited," Parker says. "It's not rocket science, but it can be as expensive as rocket science."

Beyond the Spatmobile

If MARBIDCO democratized oyster-farmer funding, remote setting took the act of growing oysters from behind the walls of hatcheries and into the hands of lay people.

Maryland has been in the remote setting business since the 1980s, when Meritt, who manages the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Horn Point Oyster Hatchery, brought the approach back from the West Coast, where remote setting techniques revolutionized the industry. Instead of having trained scientists set the larvae, oyster farmers could do it themselves, on their own farms, in their own tanks. Oyster farmers now had the ability to create and control their own inventory. They could keep the larvae cool and moist for several days.

"It was a real innovation in the industry, because what it allowed you to do was store the larvae. You could ship them," Webster says.

An oyster grower could also make a business setting spat for other growers. It took the growing process out of the expensive realm of hatcheries, with their trained scientists and expensive water-flow systems, and put it in the hands of growers who could learn quickly how to perfect the technique.

"No," Webster says, "remote setting is not hard for growers to learn."

In 1982, Meritt and Webster took setting tanks to one of the few places in the state where aquaculture leasing was viable at the time: the Nanticoke River. Harold Kennerly Jr., owner of H.B. Kennerly & Son Inc., had locked up many leases on the river, where watermen also held leases. Kennerly was supportive of any efforts to get more oysters in the water, so the Extension team set up workshops showing how to set larvae to produce spat. Later, they put the equipment on a trailer, dubbed the "Spatmobile," and drove it to other locations. Several watermen and seafood business owners learned the technique. One was Casey Todd, who owned MeTompkin Seafood in Crisfield with his father, I.T. Todd Jr.

A lawyer by training, the younger Todd always had an eye on the future — his father was the last baby born on Holland Island in 1918 before everyone left due to rising waters. Aquaculture, Todd reasoned, provided a hedge against the oyster diseases ravaging the Chesapeake and also a year-round supply of a crop at that time only sell-able in the winter. (Many oyster farmers use sterile oysters, known as triploids, which put all of their energy into growth instead of reproduction. Where wild oysters are runny in the summer, triploid-raised aquaculture oysters are firm and safe to eat.) Other states were already doing it; but Maryland's politicians would not be moved to loosen lease laws. Todd, in Somerset County, knew he would have to defer his plans.

"We had it in the back of our minds, the industry was moving along in other states, and we were sitting here in a backwater," Todd says. "We knew what could be done, but we're just individuals, and we can't change public policy. . . . But when it did change, we were ready."

Don Webster hauling oysters on the Aquarius. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham

One focus for Maryland Sea Grant has been addressing the problems facing commercial fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay. Our research findings have helped improve management of the fisheries for oysters and blue crabs, and the University of Maryland Extension specialists have been providing the technology and training for reviving oyster aquaculture.  more. . . .

Now, Metompkin operates six tanks along the Annamessex River in Crisfield. Todd has planted 13 million oysters, which he will use to supplement the wild catch Metompkin buys from local watermen. His son, Josh Todd, is helping with the oyster operation — if that's not an assured future, Todd says, it's as close as a recent college graduate can get to one. Demand for oysters is high, and prices have been near stratospheric since the one-two punch of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill reduced the supply of oysters coming from the Gulf of Mexico.

Remote setting has reinvigorated the Nanticoke, too, where many of Kennerly's leases languished after the company went out of business in the 1990s. Eric Wisner, a waterman and former logger, has 500 acres under lease in the river and set about 150 million larvae last summer. Webster jokes that, if someone has a hot tub on the Eastern Shore and is not using it, Wisner might sneak some shell and larvae in there to get a set.

The idea, Webster says, is to train the oyster farmers and then have them do their own remote setting. In 2011 the program had 12 growers who produced 33 million spat; in 2017, 45 growers produced 259 million seed oysters. It's grown from a few setting tanks to 38 systems placed in eight locations around the Chesapeake. Maryland Sea Grant estimates the Extension outreach work created 60 new businesses and 130 new jobs in 2016.

Occasionally, Webster, who chairs the Maryland Aquaculture Coordinating Council, runs into Todd. They reminisce about the Spatmobile, the hope they held on to, and the pride in what the industry is today.

"I told him I didn't think I'd ever live to see it," Todd says. "I'm 63 years old. Lo and behold, it looks like I made it."

A Food Truck to Save the Bay?

Back in Chaptico, Mike McWilliams is struggling with his motor. Fixing equipment is just one of the many unanticipated expenses he encounters working on the water. With Matt Parker, he has worked on a plan to generate more income. He'd like to start a food-truck business with a steam trailer that could travel the state and serve oysters at wineries and festivals. A new Spat-mobile, but all grown up and with food ready to eat. He even came up with a name: Capt. Walter's Oyster Co. — The Pride of the Wicomico River.

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