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Farming the Bay

After generations harvesting wild oysters, Chesapeake watermen are learning to raise them

In addition to harvesting wild Bay oysters, waterman Rob Witt has embraced aquaculture. “It just makes me feel good,” he says about the experience.

Where have all the nicknames gone?
    Once upon a time you had one — Popeye, Spanky, Hambone — if you were an oysterman working the Bay.
    Nowadays, oystermen are mostly gone, along with their nicknames. In Anne Arundel and Calvert counties, only about a dozen commercial oystermen still work.
    Two of the few are a couple. Rob and Terry Witt continue oystering in the traditional way from their marina in Shady Side. Coming from families of watermen, the Witts are committed to protecting both the creatures and the industry.
    Both species, oysters and watermen, need all the help they can get.
    Chesapeake oysters are survivors, down by 90 percent from historic levels, according to conservative estimates. Seventy-five percent fewer oystermen now work the water, and 70 percent fewer oyster processing companies buy, shuck and sell Chesapeake oysters. Buy boats like the Wm. B. Tennison are restored for museums or as pleasure craft. Today’s buy stations are refrigerated trucks.
    Still, Maryland oystering is riding a rising tide. Slight but real.
    Will the tide raise the boats of oystermen like the Witts? They sure hope so, and they’re doing more than hoping. They are pioneers, adding the new-for-Maryland craft of aquaculture to harvesting wild oysters.
    Harvesting and farming oysters keeps Rob on the water full-time. Terry combines oystering with nursing. She’s an R.N., and these days works in a nearby doctor’s office. “Something,” she says, “has to pay the bills.”

Learning to Farm
    To harvest wild oysters, Rob travels all over the Bay on his oyster boats, from Parrish Creek to Kent Island to Oxford to Solomons. He uses hydraulic patent tongs, in the process turning over the shells and freeing them of silt.
    There are still commercial oyster beds to be reaped, in part thanks to long-standing Maryland programs to repopulate successful beds.
    But a few years back, Maryland reversed its oyster policy. Ecology triumphed over economy. To save the Bay oyster — and with that creative little creature, perhaps the Bay itself — sanctuaries were expanded, oyster gardening encouraged and harvesting reduced. Wild oysters would save the Bay; perhaps aquaculture would save the oyster economy.
    The Witts flowed with the tide. They learned aquaculture, becoming farmers who grow oysters from seed to the mature product.
    For about two years now, Rob and Terry have worked with Maryland departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture to learn the methods of aquaculture. They have also taken all the courses they can find on aquaculture, mostly through the University of Maryland Extension Service. They’re motivated students. “I never stop asking questions,” Terry says.
    To support the young industry, the University of Maryland Horn Point Lab Oyster Hatchery provides seed and water tanks to the Witts at their marina. Under Horn Point’s Remote Setting Program, other aquaculturists come to the Witts to share use of the tanks.
    In aquaculture as in the wild, old oyster shell gives new oysters the best foundation. The Witts purchase and stockpile oyster shells that will serve as the baby oysters’ habitat. The shells are shoveled into large metal baskets and power-washed. Then Rob uses his backhoe to lift the filled baskets into tanks, where the life of a new generation of oysters begins.
    In the tanks, the shell beds are seeded with Horn Point larvae, which attach to the clean shells and start growing. To give them the best habitat, the Witts monitor the water for temperature and salinity levels.
    Within a day or two, an aquaculture aide from the Horn Point Hatchery stops by to check the progress of the babies. By the third day, they should be ready to be transported by boat and planted in their new beds in the same bottom areas of the Rhode and West Rivers that the Witts’ families have leased for generations.
    The spat, as babies are called, will develop into marketable oysters in about two years. Oysters typically grow at a rate of one inch per year. Aquacultured oysters may be harvested in the off-season, April to September, if they measure two inches. Wild oysters must measure at least three inches to be harvested.
    If all goes well … Success is not guaranteed.
    Oystermen know the importance of the substrate, or bottom, in choosing spots to raise their oysters. A good spot for oysters means that other creatures in the ecosystem will thrive there as well.
    In earlier years, Rob earned a reputation as one of the best oyster divers on the Bay. He’s seen for himself what bad bottoms — and the best bottoms — look like. In windy conditions, he watched oysters roll around on hard clay bottoms. On other bottoms, he saw oysters smothered in sand, silt or mud.
    Even on good oyster bottoms, other variables — salinity levels, disease, and predators — must be overcome, by oysters and by oystermen.
    Aquacultured oysters face the same challenges, and aquaculturists must brave both the old challenges and new ones.
    Aquaculture is not only a new skill; it’s a whole new way of life for traditionalists like the Witts. To counter the challenges — including huge investments of time, labor and money — some startup incentives are offered. The Witts have received grant money. Fees for the bottom leases were waived for the first year. If they don’t farm their leased bottoms, they will lose them.
    Perhaps the hardest transition is the record-keeping and paperwork. It can take up to a year to get an application processed. Once approved, there are rules outlining how much money is expected to be spent for farming the leased areas, based on acreage. In addition, there are registration fees, licences and record-keeping rules.
    Oystermen and paperwork? They’ll have to do it to survive.

Still Surviving
    The Witts are suriving in their inherited occupation. They sell wild oysters either at buy stations or privately from their dock. Their farmed oysters are growing well and should soon be ready to harvest.
    For people like the Witts who live with the water, success has another measure.
    “It just makes me feel good,” Rob Witt says, “to see oysters growing in our waters.”
    The Witts don’t have nicknames, but they have oysters.

Try a Maryland Oyster

    Many restaurants in Chesapeake Country sell locally raised and harvested oysters. Ask if the oysters you order are local; you’ll not only gain knowledge but also raise the demand.
    You can buy directly from the Witts in Shady Side: 410-867-1995.
    In Calvert County, buy both wild-harvested and aquacultured oysters from another couple: Andy and Jill Buck of Patuxent Seafood Co. on Broome’s Island: 410-610-5395.