SOLOMONS - As watermen have done for decades, Ronny Jetmore guides his small boat into a creek off the Patuxent River to tong oysters from the bottom.
Oysters, once so bountiful in the Chesapeake Bay that their shells were used to pave roads, have become scarce in recent years - decimated by disease and by pollution that has smothered their habitat. But Jetmore knows where to find these oysters because he helped put them there.
In a departure from the hunter-gatherer tradition of Maryland's watermen, Jetmore and others in Calvert County have banded together to try raising for themselves what nature is no longer providing in abundance.
"This is encouraging," says Jetmore, as his tongs pull up clumps of oysters from a patch of creek bottom that the watermen have leased from the state. Put overboard last year as spat, or baby oysters, some are nearly big enough to sell to a restaurant or shucking house.
Experts hope this fledgling experiment in Calvert County, now in its second year, will encourage more watermen to switch from fishing to farming the bay. Aquaculture, they say, is the only viable path to reviving Maryland's faded oyster industry, which once supplied the nation.
"We ... could produce a lot more oysters using the bay bottom as farmland," says Kennedy Paynter, an oyster researcher at the University of Maryland.
Work in aquaculture also might offer the best hope for keeping some vestige of the Chesapeake's iconic watermen, who have dwindled in number along with the crabs, oysters and fish that used to fill their boats year-round.
"I don't have a lot of oystermen left," says Tommy Zinn, president of the Calvert County Watermen's Association.
Watermen who in decades past would switch from crabbing to oystering in the fall are now getting other jobs in the winter because there aren't enough bivalves left to harvest to make a living.
The bay's once-thriving oyster industry has been devastated during the past two decades by a pair of parasitic diseases, MSX and Dermo. The harvest fell from more than 2.5 million bushels in 1981 to less than 83,000 bushels last season.
The diseases are not harmful to humans who eat infected oysters, but they kill the shellfish before they grow large enough to harvest. The die-off has added to the bay's woes, scientists say, because oysters are prolific filter feeders, cleaning the water as they consume vast quantities of algae and remove sediment and other pollutants.
The situation is so bleak that federal and state officials are weighing whether to introduce disease- resistant Asian oysters in an effort to restore the bay's oyster population, both for its ecological and commercial value.
While the diseases continue to limit the bay's oyster population, experts say they have figured out ways to cultivate the native bivalves in oyster farms so they can evade the diseases and begin to rebuild the industry.
Some entrepreneurs are growing oysters on floating racks rather than on the bottom. Others are trying chemically sterilized oysters. In both cases, the oysters essentially outgrow the diseases, reaching market size before they die. Raising oysters farther up creeks and rivers also seems to help, since the diseases are more virulent in the salty water nearer the ocean.
"The disease is not less of a threat, but they're figuring out ways to get around it," says Doug Lipton, a University of Maryland economist who specializes in the seafood industry.
Given the modest successes to date, experts are encouraging watermen to try the new techniques, all of which involve cultivating oysters rather than foraging for wild ones. It's been a tough sell. Maryland watermen traditionally have resisted aquaculture, fearing that they would be forced off the water by large corporations laying claim to vast stretches of the bay for raising oysters.
But with the bay's wild oyster stock showing no signs of rebounding, and with crabbing squeezed as well, some are now willing to give aquaculture a try.
The patch of creek bottom leased by the watermen's association has not grown any wild oysters in some time. Last year, using $7,000 chipped in by about 25 of the group's members, the men bought shells from a Virginia shucking house and put them on the bottom. Then they bought millions of baby oysters, or spat, from the University of Maryland's hatchery at Horn Point on the Eastern Shore and dropped them overboard to grow on the shells. The group put another batch in the creek a few months ago, spat produced at Morgan State University's bay laboratory north of Solomons.
Jetmore's tongs pull up some shells with small, purplish bumps on them showing the growth of baby oysters. In a couple of years, if all goes well, they should be 2 to 3 inches across - large enough to harvest for eating.
In all, about 10 million tiny oysters have been "planted" on the watermen's leased seven-acre tract.
"So far, so good," says Zinn. "They're not dying."
Indeed, they're remarkably free of disease. George Abbe, a Morgan State scientist, says he found a trace of Dermo in only two oysters out of 20 collected from the creek for examination.
As promising as the effort appears, Zinn says that success is far from assured. The oysters are not ready for harvest, so disease could still take a toll. And the group still has to figure out the mechanics of splitting the proceeds from any oysters its work produces. The watermen have invested time and labor as well as the $7,000.
Watermen still prefer their traditional roaming way of life, Zinn says. They don't have a lot of money to invest in starting a business, and they can't afford to work at it for two or three years before showing a profit.
For now, though, they're willing to try this low-tech form of aquaculture as a potential fallback for times when they can't catch enough in the wild.
"The whole concept was to give the guys some employment between oyster season and crab season," Zinn says. "It wasn't meant to make a bundle on."
The Calvert model
Other watermen are watching the Calvert experiment, with at least one group on the Eastern Shore poised to follow suit.
State officials are watching, too. They hope it can serve as a model for weaning watermen from reliance on Maryland's traditional, publicly subsidized fishery, in which the state produced oysters for anyone to harvest. The state is aiming to focus its efforts on rebuilding the oyster population by planting them in sanctuaries off-limits to harvest, while encouraging watermen to grow their own oysters.
"I think the reality is we could have a really good oyster industry based on aquaculture," says William Eichbaum, chairman of Maryland's Oyster Advisory Commission. The panel is eyeing proposals to boost aquaculture via technical assistance, loans or grants to help watermen get started, and changing state laws to allow more leasing of bay bottom. "I think we need to give every opportunity to the guys in the industry in the old way ... to transition into that new industry."
Though commercial fishermen in Florida and Virginia have successfully shifted to farming clams, it is unclear whether the Calvert watermen's approach to oyster aquaculture will prove viable, cautions Mark Luckenbach, a scientist with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Dropping spat onto shells on the bottom is a relatively low-budget operation. Successful oyster-raising ventures elsewhere are using racks to produce big oysters for raw bars and restaurants, Luckenbach notes. These oysters on the half-shell command higher prices, but also demand more investment in equipment and labor.
Yet the Calvert group is looking to expand its oyster growing - leasing more bottom from the state and working in partnership with Morgan State on developing a small hatchery at its lab. By refurbishing rundown settling tanks and installing some new equipment, the scientists hope to produce more baby oysters and to train at least a few watermen in that phase of the business. The lab recently received a $470,000 federal grant for the project.
"We've looked long and hard to find a group that was willing to buy into this," says J. Hixson, a Morgan State scientist. "We hope it works, for their sake and for everybody's sake."