Jim Perdue, chairman of the Salisbury based chicken business that bears his family's name, says chickens aren't the biggest problem facing the Chesapeake Bay.
And oysters are the solution.
Only 8 percent of the water that flows into the bay washes over Eastern Shore land where farmers spread chicken manure as fertilizer, he said.
So while agriculture is blamed as the biggest detriment to the estuary's health, that responsibility is overstated, he told the Baltimore Sun's editorial board in a meeting Tuesday.
The focus of addressing bay pollution should be on rebuilding the oyster population, the Perdue Farms chairman said. Perdue was named chairman of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a nonprofit focused on helping the bivalves multiply in the bay, this spring.
Oysters serve as natural filters for estuaries like the Chesapeake, but the bay's oyster population has fallen by 99 percent over the past 150 years.
"Until you put a filter back in the bay, you'll never clear up the problem," Perdue said.
Chicken manure, along with failing wastewater treatment plants and septic systems, are chief sources of pollution in the bay. The nitrogen and phosphorus they contain fertilizes algae blooms that cloud waters and create dead zones with little or no oxygen.
According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, about half the water in the bay comes from tributaries, and half from the Atlantic Ocean. Of the water entering the bay through rivers and streams, some 81 percent comes from three rivers: the Susquehanna, Potomac and James rivers.
Perdue argued that data shows Eastern Shore farming is not as big a problem for the bay as many believe. Instead, he pointed to increased waterfront development and pollutants and sediment that wash into the bay from its western shore and Susquehanna headwaters.
According to Maryland's BayStat program, agriculture is the biggest source of nitrogen and phosphorus statewide, and on the Eastern Shore.
Statewide, 37 percent of nitrogen and 53 percent of phosphorus in the bay comes from farms, according to the program. On the lower Eastern Shore, where farming is the dominant industry, farms are responsible for 60 percent of nitrogen and 83 percent of phosphorus that ends up in the bay.
According to the BayStat data, more than half of the nitrogen and phosphorus in the bay for which agriculture is responsible comes from Eastern Shore farms.
One water quality advocate said Perdue's comments seemed an attempt to deflect attention from the poultry industry and its contributions to bay pollution.
"It's all a problem; it's just that the contributions from ag are a bigger problem than everything else," said Kathy Phillips, the Assateague Coastkeeper and an advocate for Eastern Shore water quality.
"You can't keep deflecting attention away from ag," she said. "It needs to do more because it's a bigger contributor."
Efforts to rebuild the oyster population, to benefit both water quality and the seafood industry, are meanwhile advancing.
State natural resources officials and a panel of advocates, watermen and scientists are working on a plan to identify two bay tributaries to focus new oyster restoration efforts. The state has already spent $44 million to build artificial oyster reefs and spread lab-grown larvae in three Eastern Shore waterways.