From 1 good idea, 5 million oysters

The Baltimore Sun

CASTLE HAVEN-- -- Down a one-lane road past barren fields teeming with squawking Canada geese is something that hasn't been found on the Eastern Shore for more than two decades - a river filled with oysters.

And Kevin McClarren knows how many are there, because he and his crew have planted every single one. Five million healthy oysters on 3,000 floats on the water's surface, with anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 oysters each.

Every day, McClarren and his four workers - all of whom have degrees in biology or marine science - wade into the water, each with multiple layers of sweat shirts, to tend to their burgeoning crop.

"It's not a real easy way to make a living," McClarren said recently as he helped the crew power-wash oysters in 35-degree weather. "I can't see a time when there's going to be an awful lot of this around here."

Nearly two years after Maryland streamlined its permitting rules in hopes of encouraging underemployed watermen to enter the aquaculture business, McClarren operates one of just a handful of commercial oyster farms in Maryland and the only one with a hatchery.

In the past two years, the company, called Marinetics, has sold 365,000 oysters. McClarren says it's close to breaking even now and could turn a profit in two or three years. The goal is to sell a million oysters a year.

The fledgling business is succeeding at a time when the natural oyster harvest has dipped to historic lows. State officials expect this season to yield about half the 165,000 bushels harvested last season, a small fraction of the catch 20 years ago.

The state would like to see more McClarrens out there. He and his boss, owner Bob Maze, said various state agencies did everything they could to help them when they began production a few years ago. But starting and running an aquaculture business is incredibly difficult - and wading into icy waters to catch a wayward oyster float is the least of it.

Oyster odyssey begins

Maze and his wife, Laurie Landeau, started Marinetics in the mid-1990s. The couple had just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania - he with a doctorate in a parasitology, she with a degree in veterinary medicine.

They wanted to study the two diseases that have all but destroyed the Chesapeake Bay's natural oysters.

To support their research, Maze said, the couple began growing oysters for sale.

They bought a chicken farm along the Choptank River a few miles outside Cambridge. In 1999, they hired McClarren, who was then raising fish in Massachusetts.

Maze and McClarren spent two years constructing a hatchery, where they spawn oysters and rear them on homegrown algae until the bivalves are large enough to move into the river.

Idea reduces risk

In the bay, oysters grow on the bottom. But conditions are not ideal there; sediment from erosion often covers bars, and the oysters are hard to monitor. On the bottom, oysters grow about an inch a year, and that slow rate makes them susceptible to disease before they reach the market size of three inches, according to Karl Roscher, aquaculture coordinator for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

So McClarren and Maze decided to grow their oysters on top of the water in floats, cage-like structures where they are easily accessible. On top of the water, the oysters also have a steady food source - the algae that comes into the water as a byproduct of excess nutrient pollution, such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

Three of Maryland's commercial oyster growers are using floats, according to Roscher.

"They outcompete the disease - they can get the marketable oyster out before disease kills it," Roscher said. "It's not a fail-safe, but the risks are probably quite a bit less than if they were grown on the bottom."

Many hoops, permits

Before McClarren and Maze could grow anything, they needed permits from no fewer than four state agencies, plus the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Maryland Department of Environment permit alone took two years, because the agency needs that long to monitor the waters for bacteria. State environmental officials still monitor McClarren's water a couple of times a month.

"It takes a long time from the moment you decide you want to run an oyster farm until you can actually sell an oyster," McClarren said.

Marinetics passed state environmental tests. But the neighbors were another story. Wealthy new residents didn't want to look at several thousand oyster floats. The company eventually agreed to some concessions, including moving the floats a little farther north than it would have liked.

Those who follow Marinetics into oyster aquaculture should have an easier time. A 2005 state law set up a coordinating council to streamline permits and make recommendations to the governor on how to promote shellfish aquaculture. Next year, Roscher said, the council will recommend that the state create a revolving loan fund to help with start-up costs.

Marinetics' success comes as state natural resources officials are struggling to restore the bay's natural oyster population. Millions of federal dollars have been spent on putting more oysters in the water - many of which watermen are later allowed to harvest. Millions more from the state budget was approved to build a new dock at the University of Maryland's Horn Point hatchery, only a few miles away from Marinetics. And a state oyster commission is looking at several options to restore the species, including a moratorium on harvesting wild oysters.

Chris Judy, who runs the shellfish program at the Department of Natural Resources, said there's room for both a public fishery and private aquaculture. "I congratulate them for having disease-free oysters. That's a great achievement," Judy said. "I'm glad to hear of their results. I'll call them up and discuss what they're doing. It'll be great to know."

Feeding restaurants

Nobody at Marinetics will be waiting by the phone - these days, the workers spend most of their time outside, fetching oysters from floats to fill restaurant orders. The firm, which now does business as the Choptank Oyster Co., sells its "Choptank Sweets" in Annapolis and on the Eastern Shore, including at Bobby's Restaurant near Cambridge. There, chef Paul Shiley prepares oysters on the half-shell topped with crab meat and bacon.

"Everybody has loved them," Shiley said.

Shiley used to buy from watermen. But now, he mostly buys from McClarren - he can get oysters all year, and they are clean and of uniform size. "For what we are here, a white tablecloth restaurant, it's nice to have the consistency," Shiley said.

Jessup seafood distributor Billy Martin began selling Choptank Sweets after reading an article about the company in an Easton newspaper. He drove down for a tour; he and McClarren counted eight dolphins in a small stretch of the river made cleaner by the filtering of the oysters.

"I thought, 'Dolphins, in the Choptank River,' " Martin said. "I've been here all my life. I've never seen that."

He's been Marinetics' distributor ever since. Two weeks before Christmas, he bought more than 8,000 oysters. Maze still wants to research diseases, but so far he hasn't had much to work with - none of the farm's oysters appear to have been infected.

In the meantime, the young crew is determined to make the long, cold days fun. Each has a coat hook named for one of the Marx brothers. Fridays are beer-tasting days.

On the white bulletin board, McClarren's 5-year-old son has scrawled his name. Above it, is a quote Maze wrote: No good turn ever goes unpunished.

"That's from our bitter days, when we were having problems," McClarren said. "But we're not like that anymore."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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