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State-of-the-Art Oystering

Today’s oysterman is likely to be a woman — and a farmer rather than a hunter-gatherer

Jill and Andy Buck continue his family’s oystering tradition, growing the bivalves from spat to marketable size in under two years.

“Everything we did was by trial and error,” recalled Jill Buck of her and husband Andy’s early days as oyster farmers.
    “We filled our cages to the brim with the seeds and put them out in the river,” Jill explained. “When we went back to check on them a few weeks later, the growing oysters had burst out of the cages.”
    Lesson Number One: Spread a thin layer of seeds on the bottom of each cage.
    “We put in too many,” Jill said. “We killed lots of baby oysters at the start.”

Circling Back to the Water

    The Patuxent River at Broomes Island, where Andy Buck’s family oyster tradition took root, “was one of the most productive in the entire Chesapeake watershed,” said former state senator Bernie Fowler, who grew up in the industry. “The largest of many packing houses, Warren Denton, had 135 shuckers at peak times and shipped oysters all over the country.”
    A fourth-generation waterman, Andy grew up on the water where his family leased beds for holding their wild oyster catch until they could sell them to one of the oyster houses, which weren’t open every day.
    At the same time, teenage Andy was learning to fight fires, which gave him the reliable income to start a family. He has spent the last 30 years on the fire fighting force at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant. Evenings and weekends, he returns to the water and his family tradition.
    “Any time they need me to retire is fine with me,” he now says. “Then I’ll be back on the water all the time.”
    That’s where Jill already spends her days. A year ago, she gave up her daycare business for oystering. Joining what’s been called a dying industry would have seemed an unlikely retirement plan. But times have changed. Maryland Department of Natural Resources decided that native oysters could be saved — and with them, it is hoped, the Bay and the oystering industry.
    On the one hand, more oysters would grow up in sanctuaries to restore the Bay. On the other hand, maybe aquaculture could add a Plan B to the industry.

Testing the Waters

    “What will it take to get you to farm oysters?” DNR agent Steve Schneider asked in a surprise 2008 phone call.
    “Money,” Andy said.
    Andy and Jill thought it over, then applied for all the licenses it would take to proceed. With Schneider, they visited Virginia, where watermen were already running oyster farms.
    DNR supported the Bucks’ plan with grant money, and in 2009 the couple revived Patuxent Seafood, incorporating the business.
    They had a new use for the long-held river bottom lease in the Patuxent, near Andy and Jill’s dock on Broomes Island. Their plan included planting oyster shells on part of that 15-acre expanse, introducing spat for wild oysters as well as building water columns of farmed oysters in cages.
    Jill managed to get a Tidal Fishing License from DNR with little trouble. At the same time, she studied for Coast Guard certification as a captain, in case she and Andy need to supplement their retirement with ecotourism.
    “Studying for the captain’s license was harder than college,” she said.

Harvesting the Crop

    Awaiting high tide, Andy and Jill Buck’s workboat, Miss Dixie, motors out of her dock on the Patuxent River, ready to fetch a load of market-ready oysters.
    Now in their fourth year of farming, the Bucks have a routine. Most days, it’s Jill who sets out in the boat, named after Andy’s grandmother.
    Andy’s nephew, Richard Duff, helps Jill while Andy works at the power plant. Duff loves the work so much he hopes to make it his full-time career. He has a license to do construction but prefers working on the water. “I’ve been on the water all my life,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to move away from it.”
    Today’s trip finds Duff taking the helm. Duff pilots Miss Dixie from the dock straight across the river to the bottom-lease, and positions the boat alongside the marker buoy he wants.

Oyster spat, above, is set on cleaned shells and raised in mesh baskets, below. The oysters are rinsed periodically in a tumbler, bottom, which gives them a more appealing look than wild oysters.

    “Ready to start the pulley motor; no more talking,” Duff warns. “You won’t be able to hear over the noise.”
    Duff’s assistant grabs hold of the rope from the trotline that connects the columns of cages and loops it up and over the pulley. In a minute, paired cages appear on the surface. Miss Dixie tips as Duff works the pulley to dunk the cages a couple of times before bringing them on board. Some of the enfolding muck washes off. Then the two watermen pull the cages onto a shelf on board.
    They remove the lids from the cages, scoop the oysters out and stack each cage on deck, then repeat: it’s a neatly choreographed maneuver.
    In minutes, all four cages pulled today are emptied and stacked. Duff turns off the pulley motor and makes ready to head back to shore.
    Back at the dock, the baskets of oysters are whisked away to the tumbler for cleaning and sorting, and the cages are power-washed for carrying more oysters back to the river.
    Most of today’s crop of oysters are big enough to go to the final sorting shed, where they again will be checked over by hand, then power-washed and set in baskets in a refrigerated room to await their trip to Jerry’s Place or to be sold retail.

Making a Go

    “Sales have tripled over the last two years,” says Andy. Twelve months a year, they deliver 3,300 oysters to Jerry’s Place in Prince Frederick, which showcases them on ice every day of the year.
    Still, they wouldn’t be funding an easy retirement without state grants. This year, Maryland helped them buy more shells to put on their river bottom to support the wild oysters they plan to harvest the old-fashioned way — by tonging — in a couple of years.
    Andy and Jill’s natural optimism has not been dashed by the hard work.
    “People always ask me how I can stand going out on the water when it’s cold,” said Jill. “I just put on so many layers of clothing that I can hardly move.”
    This winter was cold enough to ice over the river. Miss Dixie was confined to her dock for three weeks. The oysters’ growth slowed. Many of them died.
    In a good year — and this hard winter made sure this year wasn’t — the Buck’s three percent oyster mortality augers well for aquaculture’s promise for oystermen and women, for oyster eaters and for the Bay.
    Doing their part to increase the number of wild oysters in Maryland waters is part of Jill and Andy’s bargain. Four years in, they agree that farming oysters is a more predictable enterprise.
    “I’m really liking the oyster farming,” Jill says. “If I could do just the farming, I wouldn’t miss the wild harvesting in the winter when it’s seven degrees outside.”

Diploid vs. Triploid

    Do you know the difference between diploid and triploid oysters?
    Andy Buck can fill that gap in your education.
    Diploids are wild oysters with all their parts. It takes them about three years to mature to market size.
    “Triploids,” he explains, “don’t reproduce. So all of the energy they would normally expend in reproduction, goes instead to growing fatter.”
    The farmed triploids grow to market size in two years or less.
    “Oyster diseases usually attack mature three-year-old oysters, but the triploids are marketed before then,” he says.
    Triploids are prettier, too. “We bring them up to be tumbled every four to six weeks,” Jill Buck says. The tumbler knocks off the rough edges of the shells, which gives them a nice “cup.”