Mollusks on the March!


One interesting difference between Maryland and Virginia: The State of Maryland

has relied on a commons approach to its bay waters and bottom. Under that system, watermen apply for licenses to fish for wild crabs, oysters, clams or fish. In recent years, state officials have spent millions of dollars to put native oysters in the Chesapeake, both to filter the water and to give watermen a crop to harvest. Maryland is also spending more than $2 million to study whether to introduce an Asian oyster species.

Virginia has taken a different approach.

Since the late 1800s, Virginia has offered leases to watermen who pay a small sum for the right to plant shellfish on the bottom of a bay or river and to harvest the crop when it reaches market size.

The quote comes from a fascinating article about aquaculture by the Baltimore Sun's Rona Kobell. (Full disclosure: Ms. Kobell is also Mrs. Walker.) Virginia currently leases about 90,000 acres of bottom to over 3,000 people. Among other things, this quasi-property system allowed growers to shift quickly from raising oysters to raising clams when disease threatened the oyster population. In two decades, the commonwealth's clam industry has grown from virtually nothing to $30 million a year.

Maryland has leased a small amount of bottom since 1906, but "subsequent amendments so gutted [the law] that leasing never really got off the ground….So little of the bottom is used that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources rarely bothers to collect most of the rents." But some hardy clam-farmers are trying to change that—and are running up against another obstacle:

David Harvey and Robert Scrimgeour, two Girdletree landowners, are waging a legal fight against the Gordons' leases. They worry that they won't be able to use the water near their home for boating, hunting and recreational clamming. They and some scientists suggest that harvesting the clams will harm the fragile grass beds that are crucial habitat for marine life.

But the biggest issue is over the white plastic pipes that demarcate the leases….

Local resistance will increase as more upscale homeowners displace traditional watermen on the Shore, predicts [Virginia clamgrower Michael] Peirson. He's already fighting some of those battles along his creek, as his new millionaire neighbors are protesting lease applications by him and his competitors. Unlike Maryland's clam farmers, at least he can argue that he was there first.

"People are coming in now buying waterfront property at very high prices, and they basically feel that they've bought the bay. They've got their $2 million house, and a few miles offshore, there's a bunch of guys digging for clams at 6 a.m."

NEXT: USA Today Tells the Country About Utah (and Immigration) 'Cause Nobody Seems to Know

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  1. “I say, Muffy, must those ruffians harvest our clams so near to our home? I wish to enjoy the fruits of their labors on our yacht later in the day, but I simply cannot abide having to watch such scoundrels labor.”

  2. I used to live in Maryland, and I must say that, politically, Maryland sucks.

  3. They’ve got their $2 million house, and a few miles offshore, there’s a bunch of guys digging for clams at 6 a.m. (emphasis added)

    I think the only appropriate response is “Boo-fucking-hoo.”

  4. The Nature Conservancy has been involved with leasing of seabeds under the Great South Bay, off Long Island, NY. Though a native Lawn Islander, I never was a bayman, though I had at least one high school classmate who earned his pocket money by getting a license and setting out with a clam rake – or tongs. He might have been a tonger.

    My siblings and I would sometimes dig for quahows (chowdah clams) with our bare hands and feet when we swam in a North Shore harbor at low tide. Being presented with a bucket of those to open, clean and turn into soup always made Mom happy. 😉 Hey, it could have been worse. We might have gone fishing.

    Once someone owns those seabed rights, they can sue polluters who dump crap in the water, right?


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