— Oysters may or may not be an aphrodisiac, but they sure bring out passion in those who raise them for a living.
Tim Devine barely knew from oysters when he was growing up in Easton, not far from the Chesapeake Bay. Now he's growing them on 10 acres of bay bottom near here that he's leased from the state, and professing to love the hard work and challenges involved in cultivating and selling his prized bivalves.
"It just seemed like the stars aligned," Devine, 37, said of his transition from commercial photographer in New York City to yeoman oyster farmer. Offering a sample to a visitor, he describes the glistening gray gob on a half-shell as if it was a fine wine, pointing to its mild, buttery taste, with just enough salt.
Spurred in part by enthusiasts like Devine, Maryland's oyster farming industry is clawing its way back from near-oblivion a decade ago, when diseases had decimated the bay's oyster population and its seafood industry. With a big boost from the state, aquaculture is growing, and it's bringing in a new generation of growers.
It's drawing watermen soured by the roller coaster of the wild fishery, entrepreneurs with new ideas, and idealists hoping to make a buck while doing something good for the bay. It's also starting to attract some established seafood businesses, including giant Phillips Foods.
"There's a lot of innovation, a lot of really neat marketing going on," said Donald Webster, chairman of the state's Aquaculture Coordinating Council. He was a leading advocate for reforming the state's laws to permit more private cultivation of shellfish, and three years ago, the O'Malley administration offered to lease thousands of acres of the bay and its rivers to raise oysters commercially.
It's taken a few years to work the kinks out of the leasing scheme, which involves multiple state and federal regulators. But the Department of Natural Resources has approved 90 leases in the past three years, bringing the total to 327 leases covering some 3,600 acres, according to Karl Roscher, aquaculture director. Dorchester County has the most acres under lease, though St. Mary's County has more individual leases.
Growers last year produced 15,000 bushels of oysters, many for shucking, plus 1.4 million bivalves that were individually marketed to restaurants, raw bars and food stores, Roscher said. That's just a fraction of the state's rebounding wild harvest, which hit 340,000 bushels last year. But the private harvest has been growing rapidly in recent years, Roscher said. And the demand for oysters — a Thanksgiving as well as year-round culinary favorite in Maryland — remains strong.
It won't take much for Maryland's new oyster farmers to outdo the old ones, as aquaculture was never widespread in the state.
One of the pioneers of Maryland's oyster farming revival is Kevin McClarren, general manager of Choptank Oyster Co. near Cambridge. Formerly known as Marinetics Inc., the company started nearly a decade ago.
"It was a long tough road to get to profitability," said McClarren, "but we've been there for some time."
McClarren and his four employees raise their bivalves in floats close to shore and market them as "Choptank Sweets," promoting their less salty taste when compared to many other raw-bar offerings.
They've sold their products in Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia, he said, including in Whole Foods supermarkets.
"It's an oyster lover's oyster," McClarren said, as his staff packs boxes for trucking to market.
Johnny Shockley and Ricky Fitzhugh are blazing trails, too.
Shockley, a third-generation waterman, gave up on crabbing a few years ago to team up with Fitzhugh, a fish broker and owner of Rosedale Ice Co. in Baltimore, to launch Hooper's Island Oyster Aquaculture Co. Besides raising oysters in 700 cages on 5 acres of bottom near here, they've designed their own equipment, including a customized boat for cleaning and sorting the oysters on the water instead of having to haul the heavy trays of shellfish back to shore for processing.
They've also developed a "wet storage" system with help from the University of Maryland, to boost their oysters' salty flavor without having to truck them to Chincoteague Bay for a natural salt infusion. They've branded their bivalves "Chesapeake Gold," which they're selling both in the shell and shucked in pints. They're also selling oyster farming equipment.
"It's a more sophisticated, complicated world we live in," observed Shockley.
Not far away, Ted Cooney and Scott Robinson Sr. are among the newest oyster farmers. Cooney, 53, founder of Madhouse Oysters, did a little commercial fishing in Alaska when he was younger but he's "piloted a desk" for most of the past two decades in health care finance. Robinson, though, is a fourth-generation fisherman who's trying his hand at aquaculture.
"In five years, it'll be a lot more watermen doing it," said Robinson, 43. "This here," he said of fishing, "is so up or down, it's like acey-deucey, feast or famine."