Oyster Farmers Get a Leg Up in the Business

Extension Shellfish Aquaculture Specialist Donald Meritt (center) demonstrates remote setting techniques to shellfish growers from around Maryland in classes like the one shown here at the UMD Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory.
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Maryland Sea Grant Extension

James Pitcher grabs a rope dangling off his wooden dock and hauls up a cage filled with dripping oysters. The shellfish are growing in knotty clumps, and they’re getting big.

"This is a lot of last year's. They're nice," says Pitcher, a long-time waterman from Maryland's Calvert County. "They're more than an inch. Some of them are closer to two inches."

Pitcher's dock juts out from Broomes Island, a small spit of land on the Patuxent River a few miles north of the town of Solomons. It's a steamy August day, and the waterman is sweating. He usually harvests crabs from the river around this time of year, but he says that he hasn't been out in his boat for several days because of the heat. "I'm getting too old,” he says.

He may not be crabbing, but Pitcher is still working the water. He's one of a growing number of Marylanders who have turned to oyster farming, or aquaculture, as a business. The shellfish he pulled up this day are from his first generation under cultivation, and he's working on his second now. Pitcher is excited about this new venture, too. He says that aquaculture will give him and his three adult children, who are also his business partners, new opportunities to earn a living.

The waterman is learning about aquaculture through a project called the Remote Setting Training program.  It’s run jointly by the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a non-profit group based in Annapolis; the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Hatchery, which supplies oyster larvae; and University of Maryland Extension, which provides training support.

The goal is to help men and women like Pitcher to clear some of the hurdles that face oyster farmers new to the business, in this case by training them how to produce the young oysters that will grow into larger shellfish like the ones hanging off of Pitcher's dock. The program is part of a larger statewide effort to encourage watermen who have traditionally harvested oysters in the wild to consider careers in aquaculture.

When it comes to aquaculture, "I think a lot of [watermen] are realizing that it gives them a good alternative," says Donald Webster, a specialist at the Maryland Sea Grant Extension Program. Webster provides training as part of a team that also includes Donald Meritt, who is a Maryland Sea Grant Extension specialist and director of the Horn Point Hatchery. 

Read more of this article in On the Bay, a blog from Chesapeake Quarterly magazine produced by Maryland Sea Grant Extension.

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