Don Webster presenting at ALEI Conference

Don Webster presents on aquaculture policy at the ALEI Annual Conference in Annapolis, Md.

Updated: August 4, 2021

Oyster aquaculture has long been suggested as a way to increase production, income, and employment in Maryland’s shellfish industry — even in the 1800s when natural oyster harvest was abundant. Laws seeking to promote oyster culture passed in 1820, 1865, and 1906 but encountered opposition from public harvesters wishing to prevent competition. Consequently, laws became restrictive and the aquaculture industry remained small.

Efforts to advance oyster aquaculture were revived in the 1970s and 80s with the introduction of new methods in shellfish farming. But disease, amplified by increased salinity during drought and by movement of oysters throughout the Bay, brought the entire industry to near collapse.

Today, scientists and managers are revisiting the role aquaculture could play in reviving the oyster industry. Research aimed at large-scale oyster restoration has made significant progress. The use of selected disease-resistant strains and fast-growing triploids could aid in developing commercial oyster production, but disease remains a challenge. Industry experts suggest that invigorating the Bay aquaculture industry will require renovation of restrictive laws and regulations, strict enforcement of private property rights, and promotion of innovation in production.

Maryland Sea Grant Extension agent, Don Webster, prepared the documents for the Maryland Oyster Advisory Commission’s 2008 Report, Concerning Chesapeake Bay's Oyster Management Program. The documents provide background on the history of oyster aquaculture in Maryland, including an overview of former and current projects to advance the industry, and background on recent political changes. Problems facing the industry over the last three decades are identified along with potential solutions for rebuilding an effective and profitable oyster industry.

1. Historical Background - Aquaculture has been recommended as a way of increasing oyster production by commissions, task forces, and official groups for over a hundred years. This document provides a brief history of oyster aquaculture in Maryland, with specific attention to the role of lease laws.

2. Production Methods - Oyster production occurs worldwide and is adapted to local conditions and customs. This document profiles production methods in several foreign nations and locations in the United States. It also illustrates and discusses growout techniques in the Chesapeake region.

3. Lease Laws and Regulations – This provides a compendium of laws regulating private leases, along with references to the Code of Maryland Regulations, Annotated Code of Maryland, and various federal laws that affect oyster aquaculture.

4. Lease Statistics - The Maryland leasing program has declined in recent decades due to almost non-existent production. This provides data on the location of leases, ownership, and production in relation to the public harvest.

5. 1979 Leaseholder Survey - Results of a survey of leaseholder production, attitudes, problems, and potential taken at a conference held in 1979, the first known meeting organized for leaseholders.

6. 2002 Leaseholder Survey - In 2002, the University of Maryland and Maryland Department of Natural Resources participated in a mailed survey of all leaseholders to learn about the state of the industry, current production, defined problems, and needs for outreach education and information. This data provide a useful temporal comparison to the 1979 survey.

7. Extension Training - University of University of Maryland Extension and Sea Grant Extension have engaged growers for over three decades to increase shellfish production. A background discussion on various training programs is provided.

8. Task Force on Seafood & Aquaculture - A 2003 Maryland legislative initiative to recommend ways to renovate the seafood and aquaculture industries led to investigation of other states’ programs and identification of problems affecting this state. The final report was acted upon by the 2005 General Assembly, which passed HB972, changing the way Maryland handled aquaculture permitting and regulation. Task force recommendations are included, as is the relevant portion of the legislation and tasks delegated to the committees authorized under the legislation.

9. Managing MD Aquaculture - Maryland recently changed the way that permits are tracked through responsible state agencies and the Review Board and Coordinating Council. Projects of the Coordinating Council are provided in overview, including recently concluded Best Management Practices.

10. Aquaculture Enterprise Zones (AEZs) - A discussion of the concept and process of aquaculture enterprise zones, which could serve as locations for attracting growers.

11. Problem Identification - An overview of the problems facing the oyster aquaculture industry, as provided in industry surveys, critical observation, and historical documentation.

12. Recommendations - Suggestions for developing the oyster aquaculture industry through renovation of the leasing program and enhancement of state laws, regulations, and programs. Criteria for participation are discussed, as well as potential costs associated with programs aimed at attracting capital, training entrants, and assisting in expanding the industry.


The author gratefully acknowledges the information and assistance provided by the following individuals in the production of this material:

Mr. Richard Bohn, MD Department of Natural Resources
Mr. Chris Judy, MD Department of Natural Resources
Dr. Standish Allen, VA Institute of Marine Science
Mr. Doldon Moore, Maryland Board of Public Works
Mr. Karl Roscher, MD Department of Agriculture
Dr. Donald Meritt, University of Maryland