The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Private oyster farming has helped the Chesapeake Bay. Not everyone is happy about the practice.

Oyster farmer Ryan Brown checks a cage pulled from St. Jerome Creek in St. Mary's County, Md.
Oyster farmer Ryan Brown checks a cage pulled from St. Jerome Creek in St. Mary's County, Md. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

ST. MARY’S COUNTY, Md. — No oyster could thrive on the muddy and sandy bottom of St. Jerome Creek, but there they are. Inside submerged metal cages, millions of the shellfish form portable reefs that are teeming with crabs, minnowlike fish and other life.

From a work boat, oyster farmer Ryan Brown pulls up a cage marked with a yellow buoy, an indication that its inhabitants will soon be 2 years old. They look plump and healthy, with deep, cupped shells. And later this year, some of them will leave St. Mary’s County waters to be served at raw bars in wide-ranging places including Baltimore, Chicago and Atlanta.

A decade ago, Maryland politicians rewrote laws that allow True Chesapeake Oyster Co. and other business ventures to use public waterways for private gain — and for the benefit of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem at large. Since then, the number of oysters farmed in Maryland waters has grown more than 20 times over, equaling about one-third the haul of wild oysters watermen dredge up annually.

That’s a meaningful gain, say most of those who are counting on aquaculture’s success. But not everyone agrees it’s a positive development. Especially in St. Mary’s, it’s becoming clear that the growth won’t come without pains.

Facing complaints from residents chagrined to look at or navigate around the buoys and cages that mark an aquaculture lease, county commissioners have temporarily barred oyster farmers from bringing their harvest ashore on public docks. The commissioners say the move is mostly symbolic, but that it could be a precursor to more significant steps to rein in the industry. Recently filed General Assembly bills would give homeowners around the bay the right to veto projects proposed in front of their property.

“I don’t want these cages piled up in front of our beaches,” said Randy Guy, president of the St. Mary’s commissioners. “There’s got to be a better way of doing this.”

Jill Buck, an educator turned oyster farmer whose husband comes from a long line of watermen, said she understands how the farms might look like an eyesore to waterfront homeowners. What could be harder for them to notice is the way she has seen the waters clear around her Patuxent River dock as oysters filter out nutrient pollution.

“They’ve paid a lot of money for a scenic view,” she said. “But if the public would actually see the benefits being reaped by having these oysters in that water, I think it would be eye-opening to them.”

The conflict is evocative of other clashes sparked when new enterprises designed to help the environment — think solar farms or wind turbines — nonetheless upset neighbors who’d prefer not to look at them.

But in the case of aquaculture, there is a deeper history. It was watermen themselves who represented long-standing opposition to a practice that gained a foothold in some places, including neighboring Virginia, decades earlier than Maryland.

Clearing obstacles

“Watermen did not like the idea of private aquaculture in Maryland,” said Donald Webster, a senior agent with the University of Maryland Extension. “They set out to put obstacles in the way.”

Many of them thought — and still maintain — that the bay is a public resource, and that it’s wrong to put portions of it in private hands, he said. So in the early 1900s, they pressed for laws allowing anyone to protest an aquaculture lease in court. Eventually many counties put a stop to new projects.

At the same time, the population of wild Eastern oysters was plummeting, first because of overfishing and later disease. Over the late 1800s and through the 1900s, overfishing reduced the population to a tiny fraction of pre-Colonial levels.

And then when dry weather allowed diseases to thrive, the already depleted species suffered another major die-off. A recent study by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science found that the number of oysters in Maryland waters fell by two-thirds from 1999 to 2002 alone, to about 200 million. The population has since rebounded to an estimated 300 million oysters, still less than 1 percent of pre-Colonial abundance.

By 2009, leaders in Annapolis decided that something had to be done.

Apart from their commercial value, oysters are a central part of the Chesapeake ecosystem, providing habitat and food for crabs, fish and other creatures. And they are critical to the health of the bay because they filter the water of algae and nutrient pollution, which together throw off bay ecology enough to destroy animal habitats.

So the General Assembly unanimously passed bills sponsored by the administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) aimed at encouraging oyster farming. The legislation opened up 600,000 acres of Maryland’s portion of the bay for farmers to build oyster reefs on the bottom, or to drop or float cages. It left 168,000 acres for wild harvest.

In September 2010, the leasing began anew. About 500 people have joined the industry since then, working on about 275 new leases.

Patrick Hudson and his partners were among the pioneers. He had just returned to Maryland from a stint as a markets analyst in Brazil when his father, a Chesapeake Bay pilot who helps ships navigate the estuary, came across the property that would become True Chesapeake.

The company is an example of what state lawmakers hoped for when they reworked the aquaculture process. True Chesapeake’s oysters are sold in Whole Foods stores across the Mid-Atlantic region, and at restaurants across much of the eastern half of the country. They’ll soon be the signature menu item at a new restaurant in Woodberry, the True Chesapeake Oyster House, joining the Local Oyster in Mount Vernon as the company’s second eatery.

Strong demand from raw bars, where oysters are served on the half shell over ice, has helped fuel the growth in production and distribution. When some of the first aquaculture leaseholders began selling their product in 2012, customers bought about 3,300 bushels. Sales jumped to 22,000 bushels the next year, and to more than 74,000 in 2017 — making aquaculture a roughly $5 million industry in Maryland.

Over the same period, the state’s wild oyster harvests have fluctuated from a high of about 417,000 bushels in the winter of 2013-2014, down to about 225,000 bushels three years later, the most recent data available. That’s about a tenth of the wild harvest in the 1980s.

The surge in supply of farmed oysters is promising to bay advocates such as Alison Prost, the Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Even though they’re all eventually harvested, these oysters are always being replaced with a new generation that keeps the ecosystem going.

But the growth is stoking not-in-my-backyard opposition that threatens the potential, she said.

“We’re at a point where the industry is just taking off, and they’re also facing these big challenges,” Prost said. “It’s sort of a pivotal moment.”

Listening to concerns

In St. Mary’s, the disagreement hinges not only on the physical presence of oyster farms, but also a feeling that the county is unable to control their spread. Along with True Chesapeake Oyster, the county is home to major operations such as Hollywood Oyster and 38 North Oysters. And it’s prime territory for new business ventures, as well.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources guides the leasing process, which involves multiple phases and surveys to ensure that a project complies with state law and doesn’t harm areas of ecological or cultural importance. It also requires public notice in a newspaper, and for notice to be sent directly to adjacent landowners, said Karl Roscher, the department’s aquaculture director.

But some St. Mary’s residents say they haven’t been alerted properly, nor consulted, about some proposals. At residents’ urging, the county commissioners in December approved a six-month ban on use of county docks to transport farmed oysters.

“Karl Roscher and his able staff have put forward a permitting machine that has done a great job of promoting these [aquaculture] leases,” Leonardtown resident and attorney Phil Dorsey said at a hearing on the county legislation. “He’s done a real bad job of listening to local county jurisdictions’ needs.”

Residents say leasing decisions are being made by state officials who seem unaware of the real local impact, which can include introduction of buoys and work boats to the picturesque landscape, as well as some navigational challenges. Leases are marked off with posts or buoys, and additional floats are tied to rows of cages.

Roscher acknowledged that the path forward will require a balance. To address some concerns, state natural resources officials last fall launched a website that allows the public to more easily follow and access information about lease applications.

But if the department is to give more control of the leasing process over to counties and residents, that will be up to the General Assembly. The lawmakers sponsoring legislation to that effect, Del. Brian M. Crosby (D-St. Mary’s) and Sen. Jack Bailey (R-St. Mary’s), did not return calls requesting comment on the bills.

Good neighbors

Aquaculture proponents said they’re concerned that such a move would create an even narrower path into the industry, eroding the changes made a decade ago. Roscher acknowledged that community opposition can indeed slow applications, sometimes stretching the process to as long as two years.

But he sees signs that aquaculture’s growth will continue. The state has about 120 applications pending for new leases.

Webster, the extension agent, said he longs to see Maryland aquaculture’s footprint grow to as large as 100,000 acres — a scale that would be akin to adding a 24th county to Maryland’s agriculture production statistics. In Virginia, more than 130,000 acres are under lease for aquaculture of hard clams and oysters, though not all of that area is in active production, he said.

For whatever reason, oyster farmers have never had the same sort of political clout enjoyed by watermen, said Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association. He said he hopes that will change.

“I think that over time, society will grow to accept our farms more and more — certainly, they like to eat our products,” he said. “But we’ve sort of lost this generational appreciation for food production and sustainable seafood. It’s going to take a while to get it back.”

Hudson, of True Chesapeake, said he thinks some of that burden is on the oyster farmer. When he first moved to expand on St. Jerome Creek, his neighbors raised concerns about water access, so he agreed to give up one part of his lease. And when he proposed a new lease nearby, opposition prompted him to give up on that expansion for now.

So far, he said, his accommodations have been worthwhile: The owner of a neighboring mansion asked for some oysters to serve last Thanksgiving. When another hosts a wedding on the shores of St. Jerome Creek, True Chesapeake will be catering the raw bar.

Oyster farmers can be good neighbors, Hudson said. It’s up to the industry to prove it.

— Baltimore Sun