For 35 years, Johnny Shockley was a Chesapeake Bay waterman. In the winter, he bundled into his oilskins and sweatshirts and set off in his handcrafted boat, dredging for oysters. Come spring, he shed a few layers and switched to crabbing, pulling up hundreds of pots of crustaceans from the floor of the bay. In the fall, he repaired boats.
Like the rest of the men who live on Hooper’s Island, a thin chain of low-lying marshlands that stick into Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake like a finger, Shockley was following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. But by 2009, oyster harvests had fallen to such disastrous levels that the watermen had trouble making a living. To help save the oyster, Maryland ramped up restrictions on where the watermen could harvest and what kinds of gear they could use. The state’s newly reelected Democratic governor, Martin O’Malley, was talking about closing 25 percent of the Chesapeake’s fishable oyster habitat to harvesting.
To make up for the watermen’s lost revenue, O’Malley’s administration did something radical in the history of the state: It opened the door to oyster aquaculture, the farming of oysters on “beds” laid out on the floor of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Maryland General Assembly passed a law in 2009 that essentially legalized leasing private beds to grow oysters, a practice that had effectively been banned for more than a century. A few entrepreneurs—among them an investment banker, a shop teacher, an aerospace engineer, and a satellite company retiree—had already taken the plunge into oyster farming in anticipation of the change. Yet most Maryland watermen weren’t interested. They had fought for more than a century to ban aquaculture; why should they bother competing with privately raised oysters when the state was subsidizing their wild-caught product? Besides, they didn’t want out-of-towners coming in to buy up the bay’s bottom—they didn’t think a mom-and-pop watermen’s operation could compete with the likes of a Sara Lee or a Del Monte Foods. And even though some acknowledged the tide was turning, they still saw no point in paying to raise a product that nature provided for free and the state heavily subsidized in the form of expensive shell-planting programs and publicly funded hatcheries.
Shockley decided to give aquaculture a look. He drove south to Virginia, where oyster farmers have been in business since the 1800s. He immediately recognized that growing oysters in cages on his dock would be preferable to fighting wind and rain in the Chesapeake. He came back to Hooper’s and talked to a friend, Ricky Fitzhugh, about going into business together. While Shockley had a waterman’s know-how, Fitzhugh had access to markets through the fish company he ran.
Shortly after the law passed, the pair applied to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), asking to lease 10 acres of bay bottom off Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore. When Shockley finally got the permit approved for his new company Chesapeake Gold in March of 2011, he became one of the first watermen in Maryland to farm shellfish. The semi-privatization of the bay’s bottom is helping undo a century of history. It has the added benefit of helping to restore depleted oyster stocks, but at the expense of the private sector instead of Maryland’s taxpayers.
“It’s a change from what we’ve been used to,” Shockley says. “But when people see how this plays out, it’s going to make sense.”
Public Oysters, Private Oysters
The Chesapeake Bay is the nation’s largest estuary. At 200 miles long, it stretches from the mouth of the Susquehanna River in Havre de Grace, Maryland, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean near Virginia Beach. The two states may share the waters known as Great Shellfish Bay, but their historical approaches to how to manage the shellfish within it couldn’t be more different.
The divergence happened in the 19th century, when the Chesapeake Bay produced nearly half of the oysters eaten in the United States. Canneries in Baltimore and Norfolk packaged the bivalves, and by 1852 railroads were shipping them to the Midwest.
Maryland and Virginia had long fought among themselves over the bay’s most lucrative product, the species Crassostrea virginica. As early as 1808, oystermen from New England and Long Island were sailing down to the Chesapeake and dredging for oysters after they’d depleted their own beds back home. Both states passed laws banning the practice of dredging by outside companies, but the New Englanders found a way to come in anyway. In 1877, a bay-wide survey showed a decline in oyster populations. Both states recognized that they had to do something or the oysters would be lost forever. That wouldn’t be just an economic blow: Oysters filter the water and build reefs, which are excellent habitat for fish, crabs, and the smaller organisms on the bottom of the food chain.
Virginia responded by effectively privatizing its oyster fishery. Scientists surveyed and mapped their oyster bars, then developed a system for leasing the bars out to oystermen. The leases cost a nominal fee and were renewable every 10 years; to keep the lease, oystermen only had to prove they were working it. Virginia put no restrictions on how many acres an oysterman could lease, nor did it care if the oysterman had a corporation or was just an individual. And if an oysterman didn’t want his grounds anymore, the state didn’t care if he subleased them to another entrepreneur.
Because oysters grow best on a bed of clean shells, Virginia oystermen bought their own shell from shucking houses and placed their own seed on it. If oysters weren’t doing well in one area, the oystermen could move them to another. Because they owned the product, they weren’t restricted on the gear they could use or the seasons they could harvest.
Maryland’s solution, in contrast, was to make the oysters harder to catch. The state passed a series of restrictions on what kind of gear the oystermen could use, when they could harvest, where they could harvest, and the size of oyster they could take.