Oysters and Oystering

In a decade or two, we might be hearing this conversation:

You know, fat oysters like that one you’re eating used to be hunted in the wild, like the buffalo.


Like cowboys, Chesapeake watermen rode out on low-rise boats, even in the worst weather in the middle of winter, and scraped oysters from the bottom of Chesapeake Bay.

Like tobacco farming, oyster harvesting has been a way of life in most of the Bay’s recorded history. But mark the year 2010 in the history book — and this very month — as the moment in time when Chesapeake oyster harvesting changed from the time-honored culture of hunter-gatherers to the new and controversial culture of oyster farmers. 

“It’s historic,” says Tom O’Connell, director of fisheries at Maryland Department of Natural Resources. 

This month, protected oyster sanctuaries will extend over a quarter of the Bay’s best traditional oyster habitat. The lion’s share of Chesapeake oyster money will be invested in rebuilding and rehabilitating those sanctuaries. This is where, in DNR’s best-case scenario, “disease-resistant broodstock will spawn in the absence of harvest pressure” as part of the grand restoration of native Chesapeake oysters to their historic abundance.

The remaining active oyster sites are divided into public fishing areas on the one hand, and, on the other, areas to be leased for aquaculture, both on submerged land and in the water column.

On Maryland’s traditional public fishing grounds, oyster harvesting continues when wild oyster season reopens October 1. Continues, but not exactly as before, because in the new culture, far less public money will be spent to keep oysters on those lands. And less oyster land will be harvestable.

Sanctuaries expand from covering nine percent of fertile oyster bottom that used to be public fisheries to 25 percent. Conservationists love the expansion, but watermen complain that it, and reservation of the best land for sanctuaries, is driving them out of business.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do,” says Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermans Association.

Also this month, aquaculturists — watermen among them, it is hoped — get their first chance to apply to lease water and land for their own oyster farms. Ninety-five thousand acres of natural oyster bottom is now open for leasing, plus, O’Connell says, “tens if not thousands of acres” opened by 2010’s lease reform law in Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries and Maryland’s coastal bays.

Twenty-year leases cost under $600, plus rents of $3.50 per acre for submerged land and $40 an acre within the water column. The leases require a handful of permits from both DNR and the Army Corps of Engineers.

But the real cost is seed, which remains a scarce and expensive commodity even in these times, when it’s the coin of the new realm. One million already-set seed oysters cost about $10,000; buying seed and setting your own is more arduous, but costs drop to about $2,000.

Simns estimates seeding a profitable crop to cost $400,000 over four years. “And if storm or disease comes along,” he says, “you’re lost.”

“The way they’re passing regulations on us, there’s no way we can afford it,” says Simns, himself a waterman. He describes leasing as an opportunity for the giants of the industry.

O’Connell, on the other hand, says help is coming: remote seed-setting stations near lease holders, and state and federal finance programs to help jumpstart aquaculture.

Hunter-gatherers don’t flourish when there’s little or nothing to hunt and gather. With Chesapeake oysters at one percent of their historic levels, most hunter-gatherers have faded into history. So has the healthy Bay water system, once purified by the oyster’s legendary capacity to filter impurities. Those are the winds blowing change, into a future where a new culture of oystering could thrive.

Change is now written in philosophy and public policy. Preserving oysters and an oyster-driven ecology now supercedes preserving an oyster-driven economy. 

The epochal changes now codified as the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Management and Restoration Plan evolved over six years of study and more than 150 meetings. The public process was “unprecedented,” according to John Griffin, secretary of DNR, and included “numerous adjustments to accommodate the concerns of affected stakeholders, including commercial watermen, members of the aquaculture industry, recreational fishermen, the environmental community, Marylanders Grow Oyster participants and other interested citizens.” 

Behind epochal change and public policy and oysters is a human story. Watermen who rode out onto the Bay to catch fat oysters, theirs for the taking: Their story is becoming history.