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Passion grows for oyster farming

Laws and LegislationAquacultureDining and DrinkingRestaurant and Catering IndustrySales

— 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."

Madhouse has yet to sell any oysters directly to consumers, but Cooney's got a website up to project the company's brand and its unusual mission — a pledge to donate 5 percent of all sales to drill wells in water-deprived villages in Africa.

Many of the new farmers are relatively small, with just 5 or 10 acres under leases, enough to plant a million or 2 million oysters and employ a few up to a dozen helpers. But a few farmers are thinking big.

Eric Wisner and his uncle, Mike Lindeman, are leasing nearly 400 acres in the Nanticoke River, once the heart of Maryland's oyster farming industry.

Unlike those raising oysters in cages or floats for the premium half-shell market, they're doing it the old-fashioned way, depositing baby oysters on shell-covered "hills" or reefs on the river bottom. This past summer, Wisner said, they planted 42 million "spat," as newly set baby bivalves are called.

Like many others, though, they got started with the help of a quasi-public, state-funded corporation that has made low-interest and partially forgiven loans of up to $100,000 each to help new aquaculture businesses acquire equipment.

Another newcomer is Phillips Foods. The company got its start processing crabs on Hooper's Island before it grew into a restaurant chain and international processor of seafood. Now it has applied to lease 55 acres near Deal Island in Somerset County.

Danny Webster, who runs a crab shedding operation there for Phillips in the summer, said company owner Steve Phillips wants to try raising oysters to shuck there in the winter.

For now, at least, it seems there's no shortage of places to sell their harvest.

"The beauty is we're in a time of foodies,'' said Barren Island's Devine. "We're in a time when people are demanding — or at least paying for — real quality products."

But as the ranks of farmers grow, they worry competition could force them into price wars. Fitzhugh hopes he and Shockley can counter that by finding new markets; he said he visited Hong Kong recently to scout prospects.

Devine's counting on carving out a niche closer to home. He treats his oysters with tough love, cleaning and "tumbling" them every month or so to clean them off and shape their shells to be more appealing to raw bar patrons. It's messy, exhausting work, with setbacks from storms and equipment failures. Devine said it's everything he could hope for.

"I didn't start this to become rich," he said. "I wanted something kind of fun and cathartic and physical. I wanted to be tired."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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