11
Nov
10

Maryland Oyster-culture and the Good fight

Growing the oysters isn’t the first hurdle facing those who want to take up a new vocation being offered by the State of Maryland  along with  $2.2 million in loans. The applications process is also harrying prospective speculators into an aquaculture gambit that’s also fraught with disease that has bacially wiped out the private fishery, nevermind the specter of poaching. Currently, the application process has to run through three state agencies and then the Army Corps of Engineers. According to a source the Baltimore district of the Army Corps of Engineers is more tedious than its Norfolk counter-part which oversees a 30 million oyster-culture industry in Virginia. Maryland has none and that has Maryland officials scrambling to set up  new regulations to bring in new entreprenuers to try their hand at oyster-culture.

So far 17 people have applied for grounds covering more than 2000 acroes of bay bottom. Before the new regulations were inacted in September 485 people had leases, almost all of which sat fallow thanks to two deseases MSX and Dermo that kill the oysters before they grow to market size.

“There are new methods of oyster-culture and new strains of oyster that are resistant to disease that you can basically grow faster than the dissease can kill them,” said Mike Naylor, Assistant Director of Maryland Fisheries Service.

He said the trick is to get the oysters planted as soon as possible since investors will have to wait at least a year and half until their oysters are market ready. He said that officials are working to streamline the process and foresees an easier time for people in the future, “It doesn’t help anyone in the middle of it right now.”

After listening to the application details put forth by several state officials at a conference last week, Donald Merrit, a research biologist for the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Center for Environmental Studies, took his turn at the podium with a shake of his head: “Why in the hell would anybody would want to wade through this mess,” he said.  One Virginia oyster grow visiting the Maryland confernce said the idea of going through the application process “makes me sick.”

But most of those in the audience were still running on the fumes of their entrepreneurial hopes, some griping, others ratcheting up  the tint on their rose-colored glasses. There were fringe watermen, part-timers who see potential as well as marine business folk who construction of say piers have gone cold during this endless recession. There were speculators and a representative from the Accohannock Tribe in Somerset County, Md. “I think there is going to be opportunities, if you don’t jump in, you’re a fool,” said Will Gabeler who attended with his boss Apple Marine Construction, which right now focuses on bulkheads and development mitigation. One would be oyster-businessman who request anonymity because he may apply said it seemed that they were making it up as they are going on. And yet, these new regulations is being closely watched with checked hopes by industry insiders and environmentalists who all note that Maryland’s stab at oysterculture  took a hundred years of facing down a political culture who put up obstacles for  private growers. Even Merrit soften his acrimony for those hammering together the regulations, saying that state officials already worked on streamlining  the process, but urged — more like barked like a coach, “but there’s more work to be done.” Oyster-culture, the endeavor to grow oysters in rafts or in cages in the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, is very much a marginalized industry in the very state that made the mollusk a national item almost 150 years ago. In the 1800s, the oyster was to the Chesapeake that gold was to California, spawning a massive canning industry in Baltimore shipped out across the country on the B&O. But while oyster fishery was decimated thanks to disease and overfishing,  Maryland has stubbornly kept to the public fisheries basically allowing a hunter and gather,first come first serve method, while the oyster population has plunged to less than 1 percent of its original population. In the 1880s the oyster fishery was producing about 10 million bushels annually. This year if the watermen pull more than 130,000 bushels than it will be seen as a good year. Oysters aren’t just good in a po-boy sandwich or on the half shell, they are seen by scientist as a keystone species, major filters that eat up the nasty algae responsible for large dead zones in the once bountiful bay. While officials don’t believe that creating a viable oysterculture fishery will be enough to mitigate  the decades pollution ranging from broken sewage treatment plants to lawn runoff to poultry pollution, it’s a start. At the very least it should offer some economic stability to a way of life that at times seems on the border of extinction.

The deadline to apply for a lease passed on Monday Nov. 15. The deadline for a loan is Nov. 30th.

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