Privatizing the Chesapeake

After seeing its oyster fishery almost depleted, Maryland finally introduces aquaculture and private leasing.

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.

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  • ||

    A pretty good article. But it goes off of the rails when in concludes that it's all the Feds fault, but the bulk of the article blamed the problem on Maryland.

  • Raston Bot||

    That the COE's the last bureaucratic parasite was a little abrupt but that doesn't make it untrue.

  • Beezard||

    I just wish the better Oyester harvests reflected in the retail prices so far. They've gone up about 20-30% since 2009.

    Cherrystone clams are pretty damned cheap, though.

  • fish||

    Aquaculture Coordinating Council, which could help growers sort through the bureaucratic morass and obtain permits. Even so, the growers struggled.

    Ernie Nichols, a retired satellite company executive, tried to get a permit in 2004 to start his company, Uncle Ernie’s Tangier Sound Oysters. He called the Department of Natural Resources frequently and even wrote to the governor, but it still took two years. “It was terrible,” Nichols recalls. “I said, ‘I’m a process guy. Explain the process.’ The DNR guy said, ‘There is none.”

    It's okay I understand that Kathleen Sebelius is working hard, forging alliances, putting together a crack staff...blah, blah, blah.....!

    Oh wait.....Oysters!

  • Kristen||

    Is there an article here? I was too busy looking at the smokin' hot oystermen. *drooooooool*

  • ||

    I was too busy wondering what's up with those two wooden handles that aren't attached to anything.

  • Ice Nine||

    Those two lumps next the oyster basket??

  • Kristen||

    Those two sun-kissed, sweaty, callous-handed lumps of sexiness? Yep!

  • ||

    NutraSweet is going to love you.

  • Kristen||

    I doubt NutraSweet is sun-kissed and calloused enough for my tastes.

  • ||

    Soft hands, been countin' money my whole life.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Those papercuts must suck

  • T||

    I find 'lumps of sexiness' to be a disturbing phrase. It's almost sounds like you have a tumor fetish.

  • T||


    Herp derp.

  • ||

    Maybe you have a typing tumor. A sexy, sun-drenched sweaty typing tumor oyster lump.

  • T||

    My lumps, my lumps, my tumored typing humps.

  • Kristen||

    I was merely reiterating the turn of phrase used by my fellow commenter.

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  • ||

    Those oysters belong to Teh Peepulz.

    It's thievery!

  • ||

  • WTF||


  • Kristen||


    (I seriously can't believe that's Axl Rose...looks just like John Popper circa 1995)

  • WTF||

    Holy shit - that's actually Axl Rose!?

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    Jeez Axl...try and have some dignity...go back on teh meth!

  • JMW||

    Really let himself go, didn't he?

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  • T||

    That photo did more to shred any last bits of credibility Metallica had than all of their recent recordings combined.

    Which considering how much they've sucked since the Black album is no mean feat.

  • T||

    Tragedy, commons, something, something, private property rights.

    This seems very familiar.

  • ||

    Are you kidding me. not a single word about pollution from excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment being the primarily because of of the depleted oyster stocks. If not for the effort to regulate the Chesapeake Bay watershed the water quality would never support such an endeavor! It is clear that once again it is the private sector that is benefiting from gov. regulation!

  • ||

    Mr. Hoyt, your counter-argument would be valid had the measures you mentioned actually been implemented before or during the time period covered in the article, and furthermore succeeded in reducing such runoff pollution. The indications, from a quick perusal of media reports, press releases, and the like, indicate that they weren't/didn't, and that further legislation had to be passed in 2009, too soon to have an impact yet upon the oyster stocks mentioned in this article. Indeed, the recent tropical storms and flooding probably erased a decade or more of such corrective measures.

  • ||

    Well Alex IV, "a quick perusal of media reports, press releases, and the like, indicate" Computer simulations of pollution controls implemented between July 2009 and June 2010 indicate that nitrogen loads to the Bay decreased 6.57 million pounds to 276.1 million; phosphorus decreased 0.1 million pounds to 19.13 million; and sediment decreased 135 million pounds to 8,540 million.
    The bay's improved water quality is the reason that both the natural and man made oyster beds have made a comeback. It is gov. regulation of the watershed and harvesting methods that have improved those conditions, not to mention it was gov. research that identified the reasons oyster harvests had fallen to such disastrous levels. This is not a case to show how less regulation is better. Cooperation between state and fed. gov. was and is the only way to protect the vast watershed from pollution. The private sector can't help in this case because the private land owners have no vested interest in what happens downstream.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Those decreases look tiny. Since private fisheries have worked so well elsewhere like Iceland, I'm inclined to believe that most of the solution was privatized oyster bedding.

  • ||

    "But there’s no reason a robust private clam industry couldn’t have started up in the Coastal Bays, where the Chesapeake meets the ocean near Ocean City."
    Sorry, but the Chesapeake Bay is nowhere near the back bays of Ocean City. Those bays--Chincoteague, Sinepuxent, Isle of Wight, and Assawoman--are fed by streams flowing east from the eastern side of the Delmarva Peninsula, not the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia controls both sides of the actual meeting of the Bay with the Atlantic, between Cape Charles and Norfolk.

  • CE||

    Assawoman Bay? Sounds made up to me.

  • ||

    Great article. I'm from Maryland and I've read a lot on this exact issue. Aquaculture is a step in the right direction. I also think O'Malley should implement catch share permits for the wild oysters. Catch-shares have been successful at improving the health of other fisheries, it would work here.

    Its very important that this issue gets sorted out quickly. Chesapeake Bay oysters are less than 1% of their historical levels. If they were cute and fuzzy, theyd be called endangered. Plus their reefs keep silt from moving around, which improves the quality of the water, which gets more sunlight to the bottom so that grasses can grow, and then fish use that as nurseries, so more fish and crabs will be harvested.

    When John Smith first sailed into the Chesapeake he saw that the reefs were so high that they poked out of the water. And the water was so clear you could see 20 feet down to the bottom.

  • CE||

    Just because land is underwater doesn't mean it shouldn't be allowed to be homesteaded and held by private owners. Some may complain about the lack of freedom to gambol about underwater or in a boat, of course....

  • Bradley||

    I wouldn't mind sending a certain someone off to gambol with the fishes.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Navigation technology to establish lines and demarcations within bodies of water has existed for hundreds of years, but GPS and remote sensing now makes extremely precise accuracy possible. The same principles of creating land boundaries and covenants can be applied to water.

  • ||

    The Native American knowledge that is passed down from one generation to the next tells of the incredible oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay in pre-settlement times. The stories tell that the oyster beds were so thick you could walk from one side of the bay to the other on them. The oyster is natures eco-friendly water filter. One adult oyster can filter 3.5 gallons of bay water. Multiply that number by the untold millions of oysters that have been removed/destroyed from the bay and you will see why we will never reach the goal that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation(CBF)has of restoring the bay on the backs of local farmers. If we as inhabitants of the bay area are serious about restoring the health of the bay to the equivalent of some point in the past, oyster harvesting should stop entirely and oyster raising should fill the gap. The CBF and EPA can assist in the funding of this new program as part of the restoration effort.

  • Ignore this post||

    Colonial American knowledge that is passed down from one generation to the next tells us that George Washington once skipped a dollar across the Potomac.

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    With HR facilitating the conversation and the employee was never given any solid reasons for the termination.


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