Two forums explore the future of Maryland aquaculture

Oyster farmers and researchers at a table. Photograph, Nicole Lehming
Oyster farmers and researchers share a laugh at the Aquaculture Researcher Roundtable in College Park, hosted by Maryland Sea Grant. Photograph, Nicole Lehming

In 2014, half of the seafood consumed in the world came from aquaculture. Very little of that was produced in the United States, and hardly any of it came from Maryland. Why? What are the barriers to producing more seafood in a state with thousands of miles of shoreline and a bay once known as "the great protein factory?" How can Maryland entrepreneurs, researchers, and consumers capitalize on a greater interest in producing domestic seafood, and a government that is increasing funding for such endeavors?

To find out, Maryland Sea Grant convened an Aquaculture Researcher Roundtable on Jan. 10 in College Park. The meeting complemented a gathering last November in Annapolis that focused on the Maryland aquaculture industry's needs, particularly oyster farmers, the largest aquaculture industry in the state.

The idea of the January meeting was to ask questions about expanding aquaculture, including and beyond oysters (Crassostrea virginica). Once the concerns were clear, it would be possible to match researchers interested in projects with those in the aquaculture industry willing to work on them. The meeting began with an overview given by Yonathan Zohar, chair of the Department of Marine Biotechnology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, on the status and challenges of the aquaculture industry globally and nationally. This was followed by presentations on the current situation in Maryland — from finfish to oysters to razor clams — and the challenges and opportunities in growing sustainable aquaculture here. Following the talks by researchers and short perspectives from those in the industry, the room broke up into discussion tables. Topics ranged from genetic bottlenecks and species survival rates to legal and marketing concerns. Sea Grant provided a briefing book that included descriptions of federal funding opportunities, so participants understood the range of aquaculture research the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, among others, might be interested in funding.

"We're trying to build innovative, cross-disciplinary teams, and see if there is funding to match the needs," said Fredrika Moser, Maryland Sea Grant Director. "We're trying to ask, ‘How would you go about solving some of the problems confronting growing sustainable aquaculture in Maryland?'"

Among the issues addressed:

Breeding and genetics: Triploid oysters are bred to be sterile and resistant to the two diseases that have devastated wild Chesapeake Bay populations. There is generally high mortality in small oysters in hatchery settings. But neither scientists nor farmers know why older oysters sometimes have inexplicably high mortality rates. Is it related to water quality in a certain tributary? Salinity? Temperature? Would a certain hybrid oyster do better in a low-salinity or high-salinity location? Could a seed catalog, as garden stores have for plants, help indicate which varieties of oysters would grow best in which places? Further, could innovative technologies used to develop sterile fish be used to create sterile oysters with lower mortality rates? Scientists at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET) are working on such new approaches for sterility in oysters.

Business optimization: Maryland Sea Grant Extension business specialist Matt Parker helps prospective oyster farmers obtain loans through state programs and develop business plans and farm-level economic information regarding the use of water-column cage or on-bottom aquaculture methods. But participants also identified a need to create more shucking houses to accept product and send the shells back to oyster farmers. In much of the Chesapeake Bay, shucking houses have dwindled. Yang Tao, an engineer at the University of Maryland, College Park, who has already developed an apple sorter and packer, noted his current research to develop a robotic oyster shucker that would cut down on labor costs. Oyster farmer Jon Farrington, also an engineer by training, said the state needs to investigate ways to return shucking capacity to Maryland and to efficiently recycle shells.

Photograph, David Harp
Scott Budden, who owns Orchard Point Oysters in Kent County, weighs in at Maryland Sea Grant's aquaculture meeting. Before the meeting with researchers, Sea Grant held a meeting with oyster farmers to determine what research might fill the gaps in their knowledge and help them become more successful. Photograph, Rona Kobell

Theft prevention and enforcement: Currently, Maryland has 408 active leases covering 6,000 acres in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The value of those oyster aquaculture businesses, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is $5 million, and expected to continue to grow rapidly. Karl Roscher, who spoke at the meeting and manages the aquaculture program at the Maryland DNR, said 125 more applicants are currently waiting for leases of varying sizes to be approved. The increase in oyster aquaculture has opened the door for an increase in theft on leased areas. One solution discussed at the meeting was a technical innovation that could alert leaseholders and police that a boat has entered a lease area. Several oyster farmers expressed their interest in this and other novel ideas to explore how technology could reduce theft.

Diversification: Marylanders don't generally eat razor clams (Tagelus plebeius). Instead, they are used as bait, even though they cost $6 a pound. Same with eels. Tuck Hines of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center urged researchers and entrepreneurs to think about eels, razor clams, and aquatic plants as high-value products Marylanders can raise that may not become food staples or products for us, but would be popular in other regions.

Finfish in closed aquaculture systems: IMET has been raising striped bass, bronzini, cobia, bluefin tuna, and blue crab in closed re-circulating systems. But it only operates at approximately 50 percent of its capacity. Other countries do much more because their governments invest millions in scaling up these systems. Participants discussed how re-circulating aquaculture production may portend a future where these bio-secure, disease-free systems could grow fish far from the sea at low environmental risk.

Legal issues: Oyster farmers have long complained about a protest system that can tie up their leases for months. Were finfish aquaculture to expand in Maryland, similar protests and lease use restrictions could occur. Property owners often fear cages, floats, and tanks next to their homes will obstruct views. Interestingly, when property owners complain about agriculture practices near their homes, they don't go to the courts, but to a state mediation board. Conference attendees wondered if an aquaculture mediation board could be developed.

Continued dialogue and tangible proposals: Everyone who completed a post-meeting survey wanted the roundtables to become an annual or semi-annual event. Maryland Sea Grant hopes sustainable aquaculture in Maryland continues to develop with input from industry, regulators, and scientists all across Maryland — from oceanographers at the U.S. Naval Academy to engineers at the University of Maryland, College Park, and pathogen experts from the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. Many attendees found potential collaborators who they wouldn't have met if not for this event.

The College Park meeting was the first in many years to bring together researchers and the industry, and certainly the first to broaden the topic beyond oysters. Many oyster farmers, including J.D. Blackwell, Scott Budden, and Jon Farrington, have already worked with researchers on their farms. After the meeting, Farrington, an aerospace engineer by training, said he hoped many more would.

"This," he said, "is pretty much the best thing ever. Getting growers and researchers into a room together. What could be better?"

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