1. Humble beginnings
  2. A growing appetite for oysters
  3. Reluctant farmers
  4. Chesapeake rising
  5. Can the bay be healed?
  6. Hope for a wild fishery
  7. Credits

Half-Shell Hero

How the humble oyster is reviving a regional economy and helping to heal one of America's great wild-food factories.

Half-Shell Hero
How the humble oyster is reviving a regional economy and helping to heal one of America's great wild-food factories.
Humble beginnings
 
A Grist Special Report by Madeleine Thomas

The future of Maryland seafood was born aground, in a hand-made aquarium rigged with a couple of five-gallon buckets from Lowe’s.

The experiment seems simple enough now: A tank full of miniscule, darting oyster larvae, plus algae for them to eat, and ground-up oyster shell on which they could attach and grow. But for Johnny Shockley, a dyed-in-the-wool fisherman born and raised on Maryland’s Hoopers Island – a jagged stretch of land on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay – those tanks full of baby oysters were totally uncharted territory.

It was spring of 2010, and Shockley was at a crossroads. He had harvested oysters in the waters surrounding his hometown since early childhood, but years of overfishing and disease had decimated the wild stock. Any waterman would tell you that that’s just the way of the Chesapeake: Sometimes her splendors are ripe for the taking, other times a watermen is lucky to rub two oyster shells together. But Shockley had had enough of the ups and downs.

“I tell you, there was nothing left,” Shockley says. “We knew every spot there was in this river that was a good oyster bottom, and they were all gone. We had to work day after day for just about nothing before we could get anything.”


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A year before, Maryland had legalized shellfish aquaculture – that is, clam and oyster farming (as opposed to wild fishing). Some traditional watermen were leery of the move toward domestication, saying that it took the focus off of restoring the wild fishery, and could threaten their already declining way of life. But Shockley realized that farming held the promise of financial stability in a tumultuous line of work. So in May 2010, he set up the bucket-and-tank contraption in his shop. It was a makeshift science experiment of sorts, but it was more than that: It was a means to keep him on the water, the only life he’s ever known, his family’s heritage.

Come August, when those little oysters (or “ersters” as they’re pronounced in the syrupy Southern drawl common to Maryland’s Eastern Shore) were still alive and growing, it was enough to convince Shockley and his business partner, Ricky Fitzhugh, that Chesapeake Bay oysters aren’t just nature’s spoils anymore; they could be carefully reared by hand.

Today, with their homegrown bivalves, Shockley and Fitzhugh run one of Maryland’s most successful oyster farms, Hoopers Island Aquaculture Co. Their trademark Chesapeake Gold and Holy Grail oysters dot restaurant menus and seafood counters up and down the East Coast, and in cities as far away as Seattle.

Shockley, Fitzhugh, and other proponents of shellfish aquaculture believe the practice could reestablish Maryland as a nationally renowned oyster powerhouse, on par with Virginia and Washington, two states that have farmed oysters for more than a century. Beyond that, aquaculture could help set the stage for restoring one of the country’s most complex and imperiled wild-food factories. The Chesapeake Bay once produced the largest oyster harvest in the world. But decades of overfishing, pollution, and state neglect have put the bay’s wondrous ecosystem on life support. A growing aquaculture industry might help it bounce back.

PHOTO ABOVE BY OFFSET; BELOW: DAVID HARP

A growing appetite for oysters

Oysters embody our growing obsession with tracing our food back to its natural origins. A plate of them, raw on the half-shell and glistening in their own juices, has the undeniable allure of being plucked directly out of the salty deep. To eat a Chesapeake Bay oyster raw, with all of its brininess and soft, delicate flesh, is to conjure the glamour of the wild, mysterious bay in one fell gulp. “You have never seen the sea,” wrote the playwright Edmond Rostand in Cyrano De Bergerac, “but in an oyster on the shell.”

But chances are, the last oyster you slurped was a farmed one.

In fact, almost half the seafood eaten worldwide is farmed, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency tasked with monitoring our oceans and negotiating international fishing agreements. By 2011, fish farming even outweighed beef production globally, thanks to our steadfast cravings for seafood. By 2030, farmed seafood will grow an additional 70 percent, owing in large part to the rapid decline of wild fish stocks, and growing demand for farmed fish in Asia.

Fish farming has a bad reputation, thanks to (well-founded) concerns that commercial finfish operations have become the equivalent of factory farms of the sea, spreading disease, propagating genetically modified species, and depleting wild fish populations of feed (it can take several pounds of wild fish just to grow one pound of farmed fish). Shellfish farming, on the other hand, can be much more environmentally friendly. Farmed oysters are sterile, and they are bred to be resistant to disease, so they can’t spread their genes or illness to wild stocks. Bivalves like oysters simply feed on what’s in the water already, and don’t require additives like antibiotics or the pigments fed to farmed salmon, for instance. Shellfish aquaculture also has one of the lowest carbon footprints of any farmed protein source around. (Lamb production has the highest; beef the second highest.)

Perhaps the biggest difference between oysters and other farmed seafood is that oysters sustain and purify the waters in which they’re raised. A single, fully mature oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. An acre of healthy oysters can filter roughly 140 million gallons of water in one hour, and remove up to 3,000 pounds of dead-zone-creating nitrogen. Despite this seemingly unpleasant way of life, oysters are still generally safe to eat – as long as the waters in which they are raised are tested often for bacteria, red tide, and contaminants like pesticides.

This is good news for our hearty appetites: A “boutique oyster” trend has swept both coasts in the past decade, similar in popularity, scope, and appeal to the craft beer craze that took microbrews from backwoods Colorado and other far corners to taps nationwide. Just as soil gives wine its own terroir, subtle differences in waters and farming techniques give oysters a “merroir” of their own. It’s that merroir that flavors the Chesapeake Golds grown at Hoopers Island with a bold brininess and a creamy finish, while Choptank Sweets, raised some 40 miles away in their namesake river, are much milder and sweeter.

With Zagat-rated restaurants and greasy dives alike carrying multiple types of artisanal oysters at once, connoisseurs can build their own half-shell plates with selections from all over the country (and yes, flying an oyster from coast to coast puts a slight damper on that lower carbon footprint). Last year alone, according to restaurant industry research of 5,000 independent and 2,000 chain restaurants, oyster menu items increased more than 7 percent across the country. Raw oysters can sell for upwards of $3 a pop.

PHOTO BELOW BY DAVID HARP

Reluctant farmers

When it comes to oyster farming, however, Maryland has a considerable amount of catch-up to play.

Between 2005 and 2013, farmed oyster production nationwide increased 75 percent, with $180 million in sales. In Washington state alone, shellfish has an annual farmgate value of more than $100 million. In 2013, Virginia, the largest seafood producer on the East Coast, raked in $45.1 million from farmed clams and oysters – a record for the state. But those states have been in the aquaculture business for a long time, more than a century, in fact. Maryland only legalized the practice in 2009.

Why? Because, to put it simply, Chesapeake Bay watermen can be a stubborn bunch. They hearken back to the 1880s, when some 50,000 watermen worked the bay at once, harvesting 120 million pounds of prized oyster meat each year. The oyster harvest completely transformed the region’s culture, from the tiny town of Crisfield, where oyster shells were literally used as foundation to build new land, to the first Catholic church in Dorchester County (where Hoopers Island is located), aptly named St. Mary Star of this Sea. In the 1900 census, practically every adult male on Hoopers Island identified as an oysterman. Even today, most waterman on Maryland’s Eastern shore can trace their fishing roots back generations.

The days of unlimited wild oyster harvests are gone, sadly. The industry crashed in 1920, after watermen, towing toothed oyster dredges across the bay bottom, destroyed about 75 percent of the Chesapeake’s reefs. In the ensuing decades, pollution and disease nearly wiped out oyster populations completely. The Chesapeake’s other mainstay fisheries, blue crab and rockfish, met similar fates. And despite the efforts of watermen, environmentalists, and government agencies alike to curb pollution and restore wild oyster stocks, the Chesapeake remained rife with dead reefs. By the mid-1990s, the bay’s oyster population was less than 1 percent the bounty in the early 1800s.

Nonetheless, Maryland’s watermen held fast to the idea that the wild fishery could be restored. To them, turning the Chesapeake over to aquaculture threatened the seafaring culture that had defined the region for centuries. So for decades, they fended off proposals to legalize the practice. But in 2009, in an attempt to jumpstart bay restoration, Maryland’s then-governor, Martin O’Malley, began promoting a system of sanctuaries and reserves that would allow wild oysters to recover. To give watermen an economic alternative, he promoted oyster farming.

Oyster fleet

Oyster fleet

Boats in the Baltimore Harbor, Maryland, 1885. Photograph by Marion Doss.

O’Malley expanded sanctuaries, where wild oysters could recover without harvesting pressure from watermen, from 9 to 24 percent of the Chesapeake’s habitat. He also created a series of tightly controlled reserves, where the bay’s waters were seeded with oyster larvae and opened for commercial fishing only once the bivalves had matured (legal harvest size in Maryland is three inches, or about three years of growth). He then increased the amount of available leasing space for farming operations, and started a multi-million-dollar financial assistance program for watermen hoping to transition into farming.

Despite decades of decline in the wild oyster population, O’Malley’s plan didn’t sit well with many watermen, who complained that more and more of the Chesapeake’s public bottomland was off limits to fishing. (In fact, poaching continues to be a problem throughout oyster sanctuaries.) When Johnny Shockley announced his intention to transition from fishing to farming, even his father, a lifelong Hoopers Island waterman himself, was wary of the idea.

But Shockley couldn’t sit idle as his family’s livelihood and culture continued its slow decline. “[I understood] that we were at the end of a 200-year ride on the natural resource that we had,” he says. “I was ready to do something – either fix what I had been doing all my life, or find something else to do.”

“You see what Taylor Shellfish is, right?” he adds, referring to the Washington-based aquaculture company, the largest producer of farmed shellfish in the country. “We have the same potential here. What we can do here is just through the roof. There’s no end to it.”

PHOTO BELOW BY DAVID HARP

Chesapeake rising

Today, with about 15 employees, Hoopers Island Aquaculture Company is still a far cry from Taylor Shellfish, but it’s one of the biggest farmed oyster operations in Maryland. Last year, the company raised 1.3 to 1.4 million oysters, grown across five acres of bay bottom leased from the state, and raked in about $975,000 in sales. Demand for the company’s Chesapeake Gold and Holy Grail oysters has almost outpaced its ability to grow them. In addition to the 10 or so purveyors distributing the company’s oysters across Maryland, it ships oysters to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Chicago, and, most recently, to Whole Foods stores in Seattle. Shockley and Fitzhugh are also trying to establish a market in Hong Kong.

This year, Shockley predicts his company will double its sales at least. His father, once leery of oyster farming, now works for him. “And he’s proud as hell of it,” Shockley says.

Every detail of the Hoopers Island farming operation is tightly controlled, from the water’s salinity to exactly how many oysters will grow from spat to maturity. The oysters begin as minute, swimming larvae, and are fed a steady diet of spring-green, tank-grown algae. After 12 to 20 days, they attach and grow into spat on ground-up oyster shell called “micro cultch.” The little oysters are then moved to “upwelling” tanks that pull bay water over them, jumpstarting their ability to filter algae on their own. Finally, they’re transferred to wire mesh cages and plopped into Tar Bay, a tiny enclave off the Chesapeake, where they grow for up to 18 to 24 months before being harvested, packed in ice, and shipped nationwide.

Seeding oysters

Seeding oysters

Courtesy of Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture Company and Jay Fleming Photography

“It takes out a lot of the unpredictable parts of the seafood industry,” says Matt Parker, an aquaculture business specialist for the Maryland Sea Grant Program. “Unless there’s something catastrophic that comes through the farm, you know how much you’ve planted and how many are expected to die. If the weather’s bad, you can put [planting] off for a day.”

But aquaculture doesn’t eliminate every uncertainty. Aquaculturists in the Chesapeake breed their oysters to withstand diseases like Dermo and MSX, but they are not completely immune. “There’s always a constant evolutionary race between host and pathogen,” says Mark Luckenbach, associate dean of research and advisory sciences for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Aquaculture breeding programs have to keep up with that evolution, as well as diseases that could make their way into local populations from other parts of the world. “One of them [bonamiasis] is found just to the south of the Chesapeake in North Carolina,” Luckenbach says. “It typically does well in warmer climates, but we’ve got a warming climate, so that certainly poses some risks.”

Nor does aquaculture completely eliminate human health risks. While the old adage warns against eating oysters in non-“R” months because toxic algal blooms, known as red tides, occur more frequently in the summer, aquaculture allows for safe production year-round. But the health of an oyster largely depends on the health of the water in which it’s raised – and that can vary greatly in the near-shore areas suited for aquaculture, Luckenbach says. Oysters can absorb heavy metals and contaminants from crude oil and PCBs. Vibrio – a naturally occurring bacteria in warm coastal areas – can also cause life-threatening illness should it enter the bloodstream after eating raw shellfish.

Those potential challenges haven’t stopped a growing number of entrepreneurs – both multigenerational watermen and people brand new to this kind of business – from following Shockley’s lead. The state of Maryland approved about 500 new oyster farming licenses last year alone, says Karl Roscher, who manages the aquaculture division at the state’s Department of Natural Resources. In 2013, dockside value of Maryland’s wild oysters was roughly $7 million. Within the next decade, farmed oysters in Maryland could net $25 million each year.

“The Chesapeake clearly has the potential to lead the nation in the production of cultured oysters,” Luckenbach says. “It can’t happen in two years. I think it has the potential in 10 years to lead the nation.”

PHOTO BELOW BY SHUTTERSTOCK

Can the bay be healed?

While the oyster revival is still in its early stages in Maryland, it stands to restore much more than just the state’s maritime economy. Oysters could also play a significant role in reviving the complex ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay.
The largest estuarine system in the country, the Chesapeake spans some 200 miles from Havre de Grace, Md., to Virginia Beach, Va. The gnarled, intricate branches of more than 100,000 rivers, streams, and creeks intertwine across its 64,000-square-mile watershed, which stretches across six states. The miles of shoreline of the Chesapeake and its tidal tributaries alone are more than the entire West Coast put together.

But the bay is in rough shape – and not just because it has been hammered so hard by a history of overfishing. Wastewater treatment plants and air pollution release dead-zone-contributing nutrients into the Chesapeake. Stormwater runoff from cities and streets is such a major source of pollution that state officials warn against swimming in the Chesapeake’s waterways for 48 hours after heavy rainfall. And more than 87,000 farm operations – the kind that involve working the land, not the water – now dot the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 

Wikimedia map of the Chesapeake Bay

Wikimedia map of the Chesapeake Bay

Chickens are a particular problem. Across Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the birds outnumber people 1,000 to one, thanks to factory farming conglomerates like Perdue, based in the city of Salisbury. Md. In 2008 alone, the chicken farms of the Delmarva Peninsula generated 1.5 billion pounds of shit – that’s more than every human living in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Atlanta put together. Their manure introduces tons of nitrogen and phosphorous into the waters of the Chesapeake every year, causing harmful algae blooms that deplete the bay of oxygen and create massive “dead zones” each summer.

More oysters could certainly help aid this immense problem. Remember: The mighty bivalves are ocean filters. Oysters soak up nitrogen through their flesh, turning the nutrient into a benign gas. They absorb nitrogen into their shells, too, and can store it there for decades, or even centuries, long after the little creature inside its shell is dead. At their most plentiful, the Chesapeake’s oysters were capable of filtering all 18 trillion tons of bay water in about a week, rendering it nearly crystal clear.

But it’s a lot harder out there for an oyster than it used to be.

Efforts to revive the Chesapeake Bay have been endless, dating back to the mid-’70s, when the estuary became the first in the country targeted by Congress for protection and restoration. Though the EPA has an office dedicated specifically to the Chesapeake, a target set in 1987 to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus entering the bay by 40 percent by 2000 was largely unsuccessful. By 2009, it was clear that another goal, to have the Chesapeake removed from the Clean Water Act’s “dirty waters” list by 2010, would also be a failure. President Obama stepped in to hasten the work, with an executive order detailing a federal restoration strategy for the watershed. The following spring, the EPA put the bay on a strict “pollution diet” that set maximum nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment levels that flow into the Bay each day.

Three years after the landmark pollution diet was established, sediment loads in the bay were still 24 million pounds behind restoration goals, but watershed states are more than 5 million pounds ahead of schedule for nitrogen removal and more than 1 million pounds ahead for phosphorous. But farmers and developers sued to overturn the cleanup effort, claiming the EPA had overstepped its legal authority, and that cleanup should be left to the local governments of the bay’s watershed. Last year, 21 states joined a lawsuit brought by the American Farm Bureau Federation to rebuke the pollution diet and release farmers from tightened water pollution controls.

And while there were signs that O'Malley's oyster restoration plan was having a positive effect on the fishery, his successor, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, wasted no time in reversing some of the hard-won progress. Before leaving office late last year, O’Malley proposed regulations to reduce phosphorus, calling for farms near bodies of water to either drastically reduce or stop using manure. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who promised during the election to repeal storm-water management fees, nixed the phosphorus regs immediately upon taking office in January. A month later, he proposed his own set of regulations, which are more friendly to farmers, though farms with phosphorus usage above a state-determined level would be banned immediately from using any more on their crops.

With or without pollution controls, oysters aren’t an environmental cure-all. “It’s not the silver bullet,” Luckenbach says. After all, it’s one thing for aquaculturists to grow a few million oysters; it’s another thing to restore the billions upon billions of bivalves that once lived in these waters.

Some of the ecological good oysters provide can actually be reversed if they are farmed at too large a scale, Luckenbach says. Though it has yet to occur on large-scale oyster farms, too many oysters in one farm can deliver an excess of organics to the Bay bottom, he says, rendering it anoxic, or devoid of oxygen, and not very life-sustaining. The phenomenon has been observed widely in large-scale mussel farming.

Nonetheless, plentiful reefs are elemental to a healthy Chesapeake. A robust aquaculture industry, combined with healthier wild stocks, could have dramatic effects on the ecosystem.

Take the Potomac River, for example – the largest of the Chesapeake’s nine major tributaries and the fourth largest river on the Atlantic coast. The Potomac’s watershed boasts the highest human population in the region, spanning West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. It is responsible for 28 percent of all the nitrogen that flows into the bay. According to a study by NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey, if aquaculture and restoration transformed 40 percent of the river bottom into well-stocked oyster reef, all of the nitrogen in the Potomac could be removed.

That kind of number gives conservationists, watermen, and lovers of wild places hope that the bay could some day become an example of how humans are able to revive a devastated ecosystem.

PHOTO BELOW BY DAVID HARP

Hope for a wild fishery

In the glory days of the Chesapeake, entire towns along Maryland’s Eastern Shore were built atop mounds of oyster shells, discarded from shucking houses that sprang up across the coast. Deal Island, a tiny enclave less than 100 miles from Hoopers Island, is one of the few remnants of those bygone days.

Saltbox houses dot the island (pop. 578), their front lawns piled high with a winter’s worth of firewood, or the occasional marooned, decaying pick-up truck. Hundreds of crab pots are stacked next to the Methodist church. At Arby’s General Store, a cold draft and a plate of steamed shrimp costs around five bucks. (A sign out front reads, “It ain’t the end of the world, but you can see it from here.”) And hand-painted signs for steamed crabs and peelers, bleached and shredded from the sun, keep alive the future promises of summer even in the dead of December, when the island’s dense wetlands burn auburn under the steel blue skies of winter.

It’s here that you’ll find some of the Chesapeake’s last traditional watermen, still working the water in the bay’s trademark oyster dredgers, 40- to 60-foot long wooden sailboats known as skipjacks, crafted specifically to navigate shallow waters. When oyster bars were so plentiful they could run ships aground, thousands of skipjacks trolled the bay. Now, there are fewer than 15 working skipjacks on the water – the last remaining commercial fishing sailing fleet in the country.

A typical morning on the skipjack Helen Virginia begins before dawn, around 4:30 a.m. Like clockwork, Captain David Whitelock and his six-man crew are all on board checking her engines, winders, and dredges by quarter after five. Sailing begins promptly at six, after the cook has made everyone breakfast, so that the vessel can be on the water at the mercy of salt, sun, and sky, hauling in oysters from the bay by sunrise.

A dredge full of oysters weighs close to 400 pounds once it has five or six bushels in it, all dumped on deck by hand. It’s impressively fast work: Crewmates have just two or three minutes to cull through the catch, throwing back any oysters not up to size, before the next load is hauled on deck. They do this, with just a short break for lunch, until about 3 in the afternoon.

The Kathryn in Dogwood Harbor, Chesapeake Bay.

The Kathryn in Dogwood Harbor, Chesapeake Bay.

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress / Jet Lowe

“It’s a grueling job, working on a skipjack is,” Whitelock, 43, says.
Difficult though it may be, this is a way of life for the watermen of Deal Island – and, for the rest of us, a reminder of a time when nature provided a seemingly unlimited bounty.

And lately, nature seems to be on an upswing. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2014 State of the Bay Report, water quality has improved by about 10 percent since 2012, and 90 percent of oysters have survived in the last three years, showing disease decline. While blue crab and rockfish have dropped to dramatically low levels in the Chesapeake, Whitelock’s crew, and others like it, have been doing well. Really well. By last December, with a market price for oysters of $45 dollars a bushel, the highest it’s been in years, watermen who left oystering back when times got tough are buying up every old boat left to decay in the weeds.

“It’s a part of us,” David’s father, Captain Harold “Stoney” Whitelock, says in a voice that suggests his throat is full of gravel, no doubt aided by the cartons of Marlboro Reds stacked above his fridge. “You see all those beautiful stained glass wind-duhs in those old churches? Skipjacks paid for them. The captains that owned those boats, they were pretty prosperous in our communities.”

Stoney, 67, owns the 114-year-old skipjack Kathryn. His father, his uncle (Big Stoney, a tough guy who drank hard and played hard), his grandfather, and his great-grandfather were all skipjack people, too.

Though less weathered and reddened by the elements than Stoney, David shares his father’s big-mouthed grin, and the inexplicable sense that they’ll never have to leave the water and the life they’ve always known.

And maybe, just maybe, if we can find the political will to stanch the flow of pollution into the bay, and if we can learn to be better farmers and stewards of this once wild ecosystem – maybe then, they never will.

Painting by Amelia Bates

Credits

Story: Madeleine Thomas

Editors: Greg Hanscom and Andrew Simon

Photography: David Harp; Marion Doss; Offset; Shutterstock; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; Wikimedia

Illustration: Amelia Bates


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