Oyster farming off to a slow start in Maryland

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— The dock built to hold water-filled tanks of baby oysters stands empty. The new marina for landing fully grown bivalves is being used for now by some crabbers.

Encouraged by a new state policy to boost private oyster farming, Jay Robinson and Ryan Bergey applied last fall to lease upward of 1,000 acres in Fishing Bay in southern Dorchester County. They planned to "plant" 100 million hatchery-spawned oysters on the bottom there this year and raise them for sale to restaurants and seafood wholesalers.

Nine months later, Robinson and Bergey are still waiting for the green light to launch their aquaculture business, named the Waterman's Trust.

"We still hope to be able to salvage this season," Robinson says. But he says with only three months left, their aim now is to get maybe a third of the oysters planted this year that they had wanted to.

The state's push to revive Maryland's faded oyster industry through aquaculture has prompted dozens of watermen, seafood dealers and entrepreneurially-minded landlubbers to try their hand. Yet despite promises to streamline what had long been recognized as a cumbersome approval process, most of those new ventures have yet to start, tangled in state and federal red tape.

Of 26 applications reviewed by the Department of Natural Resources since the fall for new leases to grow oysters on the bottom of either the Chesapeake Bay or the state's coastal bays, only one has been issued. Of eight other leases applied for raising bivalves in floating trays or sacks off the bottom, six have been okayed. And there are seven off-bottom lease applications still awaiting approval that were submitted before last fall, according to Karl Roscher, aquaculture coordinator in the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

"It's really been so frustrating," said Patrick Hudson, a 25-year-old paralegal from Baltimore who's teamed up with a fisherman, business executives and members of his family to try raising oysters in Southern Maryland under the brand name Chesapeake Fresh.

Their new firm chose St. Jerome's Creek in St. Mary's County to raise oysters in cages on the bottom , at a site where another oyster grower had operated for years. Hudson said he and his partners thought they'd be in business by April. They've been paying rent on shore facilities since then, but are beginning now to wonder if they'll be able to put any oysters in the water there this year.

"We're taking a loan from the bank, trying to buy seed [oysters] and equipment and get oysters in the water," Hudson said. "It's like they don't know that people's livelihoods depend on getting these permits."

The state opened thousands of acres of bay and river bottom to leasing for aquaculture last year. It was part of a two-pronged initiative to restore the Chesapeake's depleted oyster population while also reviving the shrunken industry that had relied for centuries on harvesting wild-caught shellfish.

The bay's oyster population, ravaged by diseases, has lingered at one or two percent of historic levels since the 1990s, and natural reefs or bars where oysters grow have declined by 80 percent. The number of harvesters has dwindled as well by 75 percent, while oyster-processing companies dropped from 58 in the 1970s to just eight today.

Proponents argue that oysters raised privately can be profitable and also help restore the bay. The bivalves are prolific filter feeders, feasting on algae that cloud the water.

To help budding aquaculturists, the state has offered more than $2 million in subsidized loans and provided training and technical help.

But frustrated oyster farmers say their startups have been slowed by having their plans reviewed by three state agencies, and then by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Until recently, only the state had regulated raising oysters on the bottom, a practice pursued by some Marylanders for decades. The Corps had required federal permits for raising oysters in the water, either in floating trays or in sacks suspended from the surface. But lately the federal agency, which is charged with regulating activity in wetlands and waterways, has begun requiring bottom oyster growers to get a federal permit as well.

Oyster farmers in Virginia have much less trouble and delay getting permits, their Maryland counterparts say. But that state has a much stronger tradition of aquaculture than Maryland's, and the Army Corps regulators in the Norfolk District office moved years ago to streamline its review of those operations.

Officials acknowledge that the permitting process in Maryland's portion of the bay has been complicated and balky, though they say they're on the verge of simplifying and speeding it up.

"It's fair to say it's not going as quickly as we would like it to," said Michael Naylor, chief of DNR's shellfish program, who noted that two more bottom leases are on the verge of receiving federal approval. "But please consider it's a very new program. We had to feel our way through this new process."

Under legislation passed this year, state review of aquaculture leases is to be consolidated July 1 in the Department of Natural Resources.

State and federal officials also have been working for months to develop a general permit that would simplify and shorten the process of getting federal approval to put oysters in the water. A draft permit was published in February.

Marie Burns, chief of operations for the Army Corps' Baltimore District office, said her agency hopes to complete the permit in the coming weeks. One of the last remaining hurdles is another federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has been pressing to require that aquaculture operations be evaluated for their potential impact on endangered species like sea turtles and short-nosed sturgeon.

Such considerations seem extreme to some aquaculture proponents, who say there are no sea turtle or sturgeon protections written into Virginia's oyster-growing permits.

"This whole thing is like a can of worms," said Jon Farrington, the first to get approved under the state's revamped leasing law. He's in the process now of expanding a small aquaculture business, Johnny Oysterseed, that he has operated the past five years on the Patuxent River in Calvert County.

"It's easy to grow oysters," Farrington said. "What's hard is the nonsense and regulations that come out of the woodwork."

Roscher, the aquaculture coordinator, said he hopes the changes will shorten the time needed to process lease applications from six months — or in many cases longer — to no more than four months. But controversial proposals will still face delays, officials caution.

One of those comes from Don Marsh, who said he's been trying for more than two years to get permission to raise oysters on a 40-acre patch of bottom in Chincoteague Bay near his South Point home. Other waterfront homeowners have raised concerns about how his operation will spoil their view of the bay and that it may interfere with underwater grasses, fish, boating and other recreation.

Marsh said he has revised his lease application twice, and moved it farther offshore. But every time someone complains or raises a new question, he said, regulators ask him to answer it. Though Marsh had one public hearing on his plan, Roscher said another public information meeting is planned to air all the changes Marsh has made.

Marsh, 64, said he can afford to be patient because he is retired and only proposing a relatively small-scale farm, raising perhaps 200,000 oysters at first for sale to raw bars and restaurants.

Robinson, director of the Watermen's Trust, said he and his partner have invested $200,000 alone in building the marina and dock for the largest oyster-growing lease requested so far. But their bid also has been slowed by objections from local watermen, who have argued that the area where the partners want to raise oysters is producing them naturally again after years of being barren.

"We went from almost nothing to lots of oysters in that general area," said Naylor, the state's shellfish program director. The state has surveyed the bottom of Fishing Bay there and adjusted the lease boundaries to avoid natural oyster bars, Naylor said, reducing it to 814 acres. But that may not end the controversy, as watermen have complained that the state in its effort to promote aquaculture was depriving them of some of the best areas for harvesting wild oysters.

"We're trying to come up with some sort of a compromise where you can issue a lease and still have a fishery down there," Naylor said.

Despite the dispute, Robinson said he and his partner envision the Waterman's Trust as a boon for commercial watermen.

Robinson, 45, and a native of lower Dorchester, said he was a waterman for 20 years before getting into the management of a seafood business.

They hope to enlist about 30 watermen to work their oysters after they were planted, Robinson said, and then to give them a share of the harvest once grown to a marketable size.

Over on Hoopers Island, Johnny Shockley is among the fortunate handful of new oyster farmers who's gotten his lease and other permits and is busily preparing to plant his second batch of bivalves. The permitting process was "very frustrating but understandable," he said, since his application was one of the first the state had done under the new leasing law.

Now, he and his partner, Ricky Fitzhugh, owner of Rosedale Ice Co. in Baltimore, are planning to market their harvest as premium sustainable seafood to raw bars and upscale restaurants under the brand name Chesapeake Gold.

"What you're looking at here is around three million oysters," he said one day last week as he dipped his hands into a round fiberglass tank covered with what look like bits of shell. Each bit is a baby oyster 2 to 4 millimeters across.

Shockley, 48, is a third-generation waterman who's stopped crabbing to dive headlong into oyster farming. With the help of three seasonal workers, he's built his own tanks for rearing baby oysters at the dock until they're big enough to put out in the bay in cages. They're nearly finished fitting out a boat customized to hoist the 500-pound cages from the bottom and mechanically sort the oysters by size. And he's planning to start his own hatchery.

He said he has no regrets about leaving the traditional waterman's life to become an aquaculturist. He's hoping not merely to raise the bivalves for consumption, but to supply the equipment and eventually seed oysters to other oyster farmers.

"We intend to grow an industry in the state of Maryland," he said. And in the process, he added, "you're creating natural fish habitat, and you're cleaning the bay by adding millions of oysters to it."

In an earlier version, the story incorrectly identified the manner in which Chesapeake Fresh Oyster Co. plans to raise its oysters. The Sun regrets the error.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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