Behind the Scenes at Ferry Cove Shellfish

By Cheryl Costello

It’s about to become one of the largest oyster hatcheries on the East Coast. Ferry Cove Shellfish is ready to take orders from oyster farmers in the new year. The facility just outside St. Michaels in Talbot County uses a recirculating aquaculture system that pulls in creek water, among many cutting-edge techniques.

Bay Bulletin went inside Ferry Cove for a first look at the 20,000-square-foot facility set to fill a gap in the supply of oyster larvae. It sits on 70 acres in Sherwood, with a waterfront view of the Bay. In just weeks, the facility will begin to produce oyster larvae to be sold to commercial (public and private) aquaculture operations far and wide.

Ferry Cove’s creators saw a need for more larvae availability on the Chesapeake. “The demand for the product far exceeds what’s available,” explains President and CEO Stephan Abel.

Larvae are the first part of the oyster’s life cycle, and after about 2 to 3 years in the wild the oyster then ends up served on the half shell. The water comes in from the Bay and is filtered in the facility. They can adjust the salinity so the growing doesn’t stop when the seasons change. Colorful LED lights, reminiscent of Christmas decorations, help produce algae, the sole source of nutrition for the oysters.

Abel starting working on a plan with the Ratcliffe Foundation in Annapolis, which supports business development. A study from five years ago revealed a gap in the oyster growing industry, he said. “During the course of our conversations, it became really apparent that within Maryland there was a larvae shortage. So there was a bottleneck in the amount of larvae that seafood growers would have available for their farms.”

Hatchery manager Steven Weschler showed us around the brand-new facility, beginning with the brood stockroom where the process starts. “So we’re just cleaning off any organisms that might compete for food,” he showed us. He then led us to the tanks where Ferry Cove will slowly ramp up the water temperature to about 68 degrees, holding the larvae there for about 6 to 8 weeks. There they will produce sperm and eggs before going to the spawning system.

“This is our spawning table. This is where we’ll bring in the brood stock that we just conditioned. We’ll place them out on the tape, start increasing the temperature, and that’s typically a cue for them to start spawning,” Weschler says. “We’re able to really increase our production here by manipulating the temperature.”

Soon there will be millions of fertilized eggs. It’s tough to see them in the water; they’re retrieved with a sieve. “After 4 to 6 days in the egg-hatching tanks, we bring them over to our flow-through larval tanks. And so they’ll stay here for the next two weeks,” Weschler continues.

Ferry Cove isn’t in the nonprofit/oyster restoration business right now—they serve primarily oyster farms. “We are focused on supporting the industry, recognizing that there’s always going to be a need for restoration. But if you can, in essence, bring private money into the program and have it continually supported it will become a self-sustaining enterprise that benefits everybody,” Abel says.

The company expects to produce 2 to 3 billion larvae annually. “Ever since we started this project, we’ve been getting calls wanting to know when we’re going to start. And now we’re in the process of being able to take orders here in the new year.”