Sustainability: step forward, step back


CAPE CHARLES, Va. -- Sustainable development; sustainable agriculture; a sustainable society.

Globally and around the Chesapeake Bay, you hear sustainability endorsed as our only shot, long-term, at reconciling human well-being and a healthy natural world.

The concept is valid; but definitions are elusive, ranging from reducing waste and using renewable energy, to stabilizing population and redefining happiness in less materialistic terms.

But here at the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, in the sandy bottom of a shallow tidal creek, is one modest piece of the sustainability puzzle.

Meanwhile, a threat to that approach has surfaced nearby; but first the promising reality.

Along little Kings Creek are a couple of low, concrete-block buildings with tanks of olive baywater. Only if you stare hard can you see that the water is full of particles, fine as dust -- actually tens of millions of larval hard clams, an abundant bay shellfish limited by its need for high salinity mostly to Virginia waters of the Chesapeake.

The larval clams are all spawned and strained from just a few grownups; just one can produce 20 million eggs. The little clams are fed a scientifically selected algal broth, a nutritious mix of two strains, from Long Island Sound and Tahiti, grown and blended daily in tanks on the premises. For about two months the clams are nurtured and moved through a series of different tanks after they pass their most critical stage of dropping to the bottom and forming shells.

In the hatchery here, despite all attention paid them, only about one in 10 makes it to full clamhood. But in nature, survival is about one in 10 million.

After reaching the size of finely crushed pieces of gravel, the bivalves are conditioned in outdoor tanks of raw creek water, where diet and temperature no longer are controlled. Finally, the clams are placed in the creek, on about 75 acres of sandy growing bottom leased by Cherrystone Aqua-Farms. They will spend the next few years there in a foot or two of water, covered by nets to keep out hungry blue crabs and cow-nosed rays.

Cherrystone's owner, Chad Ballard Jr., and Mike Peirson, his Ph.D. hatchery manager, look back on a decade of hard work, trial and error; but they are now the largest clam farm on the East Coast. This year they will ship to East Coast markets some 22 million "little necks," which are hard clams raised to a size of a couple inches across their shells.

Unlike most seafood, clams claim the greatest price at small sizes -- 15-16 cents apiece wholesale for the little necks. A huge, 20-year-old chowder clam would fetch only a nickel. For that and other reasons, the hard clam is close to passing from a "wild harvest" seafood to a delicacy that is mostly farmed. Cherrystone and a few smaller clam farms here already nearly equal the annual wild harvest of 40 million clams from Virginia waters. And Ballard says he is confident of tripling production in the next few years.

'Successful new industry'

In rural Northampton County, where unemployment is a chronic problem, clam farming "is the first successful new industry we've gained in my lifetime," says Furlong Baldwin, 62, whose bayside home is a couple creeks north of Cape Charles -- and has been in his family since 1662.

Baldwin, who spends his weekdays in Baltimore as CEO of the Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust Co., gets excited when he talks about clam farming these days. "Think of it -- they're taking $3 million a year out of one little creek, and they'll soon be doing better than that; and there are lots and lots of little creeks like that, a huge potential market for clams."

Cherrystone already employs 31 people full time, plus spot help for harvesting. And, like poultry producers on the Eastern Shore, the company contracts with growers, who get little clams from the hatchery and take a percentage of the sale price at harvest. The growers and their employees account for another 100 full- and part-time jobs.

It is an industry that builds on the region's natural assets: its clean waters and seafood harvesting culture and tradition.

The enlightened vision for economic development from a recent county forum was to "combine long-term economic vitality with protection of natural resources and the rural lifestyle." So it is that Cherrystone -- call it sustainable development, or just call it a clam farm -- seems to be a future that fits.

Now consider "Accawmacke Plantation," a development touted grandiosely as the next Hilton Head by Brown and Root, a Texas oil-equipment company. For years, the company has been holding some 2,000 acres it bought here in anticipation of the boom from offshore oil exploration that never came. During the next 25 years, Accawmacke would add 5,000 upscale residents to the county, whose 1990 population was 13,601. Brown and Root says the venture would create 6,000 permanent jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars of economic development and retail sales.

The county, which has worked for years with a national environmental group, the Nature Conservancy, to foster good land use and development, says the claims by Brown and Root are difficult to evaluate. That is because the company persuaded Cape Charles, a depressed old railroad town of about 1,400 people, to annex the whole mammoth project. That effectively exempted it from county planning and zoning scrutiny.

A key to the entire project, Brown and Root says, is expansion of a 68-slip marina to 500 slips. The marinalies nearly within a clam's throw of Cherrystone's operation on the other side of the creek. Water-quality modeling by the respected Virginia Institute of Marine Science indicates that the marina won't close Cherrystone's shellfish beds. But Ballard worries that the actual impact of the expansion "will be devastating."

The VIMS modeling looks only at sewage contamination, which is the state health department's main concern about shellfish. The modeling does not consider the effects of increased marine traffic, dredging, toxic paint on boat bottoms, accidental spills of oil and grease, runoff from parking lots and so forth, says Peirson.

Alternative sites

Both men say that clean water is a major selling point for farmed seafood and that marina pollution would cast doubt on the purity of their product. Moreover, they point to alternative marina sites such as an existing deep-water harbor in Cape Charles, a town that needs redevelopment anyway.

The alternative sites are more expensive than Kings Creek and, in the case of the port, would encounter jurisdictional difficulties with the railroad. But working such things out is the difference between wise, sustainable development and development-as-usual.

Such wisdom won't come from Brown and Root, which most probably will turn the project over to other companies and go back to Texas once it gets development permits.

That is all the more reason for Virginia and the Army Corps of Engineers, which must issue permits for the marina, to do what is right, not just for now; but forever.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad