Chesapeake Bay Oyster Farming Rivals Wild Fishery

An article in the Bay Journal this month points to the booming oyster aquaculture industry in Chesapeake Bay as thriving enough to actually surpass the wild fishery.

The value of Virginia’s oyster farms has indeed exceeded the public fishery, and Maryland appears to be following in the same path. According to numbers from 2016, 173 Maryland farmers are actively producing oysters in leased areas of the Bay totaling over 6,000 acres. As the Bay Journal explains, “Harvest from those leases yielded almost 65,000 bushels in 2016 — an increase of 1,000 percent since 2012. In the meantime, Maryland’s public oyster harvest, suffering from mediocre to poor reproduction since 2010, saw its harvest drop 42 percent in 2016 to about 224,000 bushels.”

Oysters, Cheapeake
Growing oysters in Maryland (credit: Dave Harp, Bay Journal)

One Maryland oyster farmer told the Bay Journal that he thought expansion of the sector would happen more quickly than it has. The permitting process was painfully slow until law changes in 2009, and recent changes in the oyster farming process have also helped. Maryland currently has a $5 million oyster farming industry that has created nearly 500 jobs. Meanwhile, Virginia’s oyster aquaculture produced $18.5 million in sales in 2006.

Maryland is a prime example of the cumbersome bureaucracy and permitting process faced by most aquaculture operations in the U.S. Many banks are unwilling to fund such a costly startup, property owners can fight to keep floating cages from impairing their views, and often the newness of the industry generates questions that have never been posed before, creating a lengthy process. But Maryland is also becoming an example of aquaculture development thanks to persistent farmers.

There is now an online mapping tool for the Bay area allowing farmers to see what obstacles may lay in the way of their desired lease; the University of Maryland Sea Grant now has a program that offers training for how to set oysters; and in 2011 the Maryland Agriculture and Resource-Based Industry Development Corp. created a fund that has since approved $3 million in aquaculture loans to help growers.

As more people begin to initiate aquaculture operations and improve the technology, as is being done with oysters in Maryland, it seems farming seafood in the U.S. will only continue to expand from here.

Read more about specific farmers and their difficulties in the Bay Journal’s article here.


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