Today's the beginning of oyster season in Maryland, but not just yet for the handfull of pioneers who've been first to jump on the state's new bandwagon promoting private oyster farming over the traditional wild fishery.
So far, 16 individuals or companies have applied to lease about 3,311 acres of bottom in the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers so they can raise oysters there, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. They're the first to try their hand since Maryland expanded the area available for leasing, while setting aside other large areas as sanctuaries where no harvest would be permitted - including some areas that until this year had been actively harvested by watermen.
Dorchester County seafood dealer Jay Robinson is one of those. He's teamed up with Berlin accountant Ryan Bergey to start an oyster aquaculture operation in which they hope to employ watermen working private oyster beds. They've already begun to build the "setting" facility where they'll have baby oysters, or spat, settle on oyster shells before putting them in open water.
Robinson said they're anxious to start preparing the bottom where they hope to begin planting oysters next spring. But they're in a holding pattern for now, because the state has yet to act on their application to lease 1,000 acres. Robnson said he was told it may be up to 60 days before he gets word.
"We have a group of guys that are more than willing, ready to work," Robinson said Thursday. "But untiil we can get this lease ... then our hands are sort of tied at this point."
DNR spokesman Josh Davidsburg said the leases take time to process because state officials have to put the lease applications out for public review, get approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which must issue permits to put anything on the bottom) and notify nearby landowners of the impending lease.
"It's not just 'Poof!', we approve it, and it happens," Davidsburg said.
Oyster farmers like Robinson and Bergey are the poster children for the state's bid to shift its oyster industry to aquaculture. With wild harvests for nearly two decades now just 1 percent of what they were in the industry's heyday, state officals hope to have Maryland catch up with Virginia, which has encouraged private oyster growing for more than a century and now has a $30 million aquaculture industry.
About 4,500 acres of bay bottom in Maryland have been leased over the years, but only about 10 percent have been actively worked since the 1980s, according to DNR, when oyster diseases ravaged the bay's shellfish. Now, with new techniques to raise more disesae-resistant oysters, a University of Maryland report predicts that the state could build a new aquaculture industry that could generate $25 million a year in revenue and employ 225 people.
First, though, they newcomers have to get the green light to get in the water.
Meanwhile, there are still 550 watermen who roam the bay and its rivers looking to harvest wild oysters. They're none too happy that the state has expanded its network of sanctuaries off limits to them, from 9 percent of quality oyster habitat to about 26 percent. State officials point out that they've only set aside a quarter of the oyster bars watermen have traditionally worked, leaving three-fourths still open to them. But the watermen say some of those taken away have been among their most productive.
Acknowledging that the shift to aquaculture "may result in short-term economic impacts" for the wild fishery, state officials say they're planning to hire watermen to do reef restoration and other work to improve oyster habitat in the bay. The state offered similar work to watermen the past couple winters to make up for lost crab catch after the record-low crab harvest of 2007 led to a federal disaster declaration, and $15 million in relief funds.
In the meantime, DNR is making clear Natural Resources Police will be watching closely to make sure watermen don't try to poach oysters from the newly expanded sanctuaries, or the new leased areas. The agency put out a press release to that effect Thursday, noting that violators risk losing their licenses to fish or oyster for up to a year.
(Oyster shells in tongs wielded by Ron Jetmore of Solomons, as he checked November 2008 on oyster spat planted in Patuxent River by watermen. Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor)