Sunlight glinted off the water as Billy Rice stood on the gunwale of Miss Jill, his 24-foot Chesapeake Classic boat. Gripping the wooden handles of his scissors-like oyster tongs, he repeatedly worked them open and shut.
From the murky depths of the Wicomico River came a scraping sound as the teeth in the metal claws of the tongs raked up shells lying on the bottom.
“Yessir! That looks pretty,” exclaimed Kevin Warring as Rice lifted the tongs out of the water and deposited a batch of muddy oysters on the boat. Nine of the bivalves clung together in a clump that Rice said watermen call a “flower.”
Those oysters represent a new wrinkle in the centuries-old business of harvesting the Chesapeake Bay’s once-bountiful shellfish. Rice and Warring are members of an unusual oyster farming cooperative in Charles County, MD. They and the other 10 co-op members are raising oysters on 28 acres of leased bottom in the Wicomico, a Potomac River tributary.
There’s nothing out of the ordinary about farming oysters that way. There are nearly 480 oyster farming leases in Maryland, and more than three-fourths of them are for raising bivalves on the bottom. Many are held by watermen looking to supplement what they can forage in the wild from public waters.
But what’s sending ripples across the Bay area is that the co-op is getting paid to plant oysters. In July 2022, Charles County struck a deal with the co-op, agreeing to annually pay at least $53,000 for the next eight years to cover its costs for planting fresh batches of hatchery-spawned oysters. Aquaculture operations generally must come up with their own operating capital.
The co-op still gets to harvest and sell the oysters when they’ve grown to marketable size after two or three years. What the county
expects to get out of the deal are water-quality credits that those oysters can earn from the state of Maryland for removing nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus — from the water as they feed and grow.
It’s a novel arrangement, which advocates hope will inspire other deals in a so-far moribund market for nutrient removal credits that oyster farmers can earn.
“It seemed like not just a win-win, but a win-win-win situation,” said Mark Belton, Charles County’s administrator and a former secretary of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. The nutrient removal credits will help the county meet its regulatory obligations in the Bay cleanup, he said, while the county is helping to sustain a fishing industry that’s an important part of the local culture.
“Plus, it’s a food security issue,” Belton said, because it ensures residents still have access to fresh local seafood.
Members of the co-op, all of them watermen, say the payments reimburse them for the time they spend planting and tending their underwater crops, then doing the necessary paperwork to earn water-quality credits.
But Warring, the co-op’s managing director, said that money is not really the main driver.
“Many of our members want to see a thriving oyster population and a thriving set of local watermen who can provide fresh food for residents,” he said.
New way to control pollution
The Wicomico River once brimmed with oysters. In 1973, Rice recalled, when he started working on the water fulltime, there were 163 boats in the river on the opening day of oyster season. “Everyone caught their limit,” he said.
Oyster populations have declined precipitously since then throughout much of the Bay mainly because of pollution and diseases, but also overharvesting. While oysters have rebounded some in the last decade or so, the generally low salinity in the Wicomico hasn’t been conducive to natural reproduction that might restore reefs in the river.
Rebuilding the Bay’s oyster population is a priority for the Chesapeake restoration effort because of the bivalves’ ecological and economic benefits. Oysters filter nutrients and some sediment from the water as they feed, and the reefs formed by their accumulated shells provide habitat and food for a variety of marine organisms and fish.
The reefs also can help reduce shoreline erosion by buffering wave action.
In 2017, looking for ways to incentivize the fight against nutrient pollution, the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program approved oyster aquaculture as a best management practice for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus in the Bay, similar to approved land-based practices such as planting streamside forest buffers and fall cover crops.
After working out the regulatory details a few years later, Maryland incorporated oyster aquaculture into its water-quality trading program. Under it, oyster farmers can earn nutrient reduction credits for the oysters they raise and harvest. They can then sell those credits to a business or municipal wastewater plant needing to reduce or offset its nutrient discharges.
For Maryland oyster farmers, the credits offer an opportunity to earn a little extra income in an industry that’s making no one rich right now. Regulatory delays and leasing disputes have slowed the industry’s growth. It took a hit in 2018 and 2019 when record rainfall turned Bay water so fresh it stunted and even killed some oysters. Then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down restaurants and oyster bars, shrinking the market.
Finding a buyer
Since 2020, about a dozen oyster farming operations have earned nutrient reduction credits for their harvests and posted them for sale on MDE’s online market board. There were a couple of deals struck that first year, but none since.
Part of the reason for that may be a matter of scale. The prospective buyers on the MDE website are industries or government entities looking to buy more nutrient credits than any individual oyster farmer has to offer.
It takes at least 2,000 oysters to earn credit for removing a single pound of nitrogen from the water, and many industrial or municipal dischargers need to offset hundreds of pounds.
Geographic restrictions also may handicap oyster farmers. To ensure that trades offset pollution where it occurs, MDE specified that credits can only be sold in the watershed where the oysters are grown. Many oyster farms are in rural areas on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland, where there are relatively few industries or wastewater plants.
Blue Oyster Environmental, a Cambridge-based company formed by the father-son team of Johnny and Jordan Shockley, has tried to overcome those hurdles. It brokered one of the initial oyster credit deals and has tried to land others by bundling credits earned by more than one aquaculture operation.
They’ve struck out so far, though, and think part of the problem may be that there isn’t sufficient regulatory pressure on polluters to reduce their nutrient output. They said they’ve made sales pitches without success to several businesses and local government entities that had posted “credits wanted” notices on MDE’s trading website. Those notices are still there.
“The biggest reason for lack of trades comes down to lack of enforcement,” contended Jordan Shockley, Blue Oyster’s CEO.
Johnny Shockley said he’s excited to hear about the oyster farming co-op and its deal with Charles County.
“That business model is one we’ve been pushing for,” he said. “I totally believe that’s the future of the oyster industry.”
The concept isn’t new to Charles County watermen. About half of them participate in an informal co-op with counterparts from Virginia to manage an oyster reef on the Potomac River.
The Wicomico River co-op took that a step further. To demonstrate their commitment, every member put up $1,000 to begin a small-scale planting of juvenile oysters before the deal with the county came through.
“What we did on our own showed we were willing to take the gamble and do the work,” explained Warring.
County officials credit Warring with leading the effort to nail down the deal. A county native with a bachelor’s degree in physics, he works at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indian Head. But he also crabs and helps work the family farm and is secretary of the Charles County watermen’s association.
Closing the deal
The roots of the co-op’s deal with the county go back to 2018, when local watermen appealed to the county commissioners for financial support during the record-setting rainfall that year, which affected wild as well as farmed oysters.
In response, the county agreed to provide $50,000 to plant hatchery-spawned oysters in a state-designated sanctuary. They couldn’t be harvested there, but everyone hoped they’d survive and reproduce over time, helping to restore oysters in neighboring areas naturally.
Belton and other local officials joined the watermen on the water to witness that planting. On the boat, they began discussing how the county might do more to help sustain the local seafood industry.
In June, buoyed by the pending deal with the county, the co-op deposited about 1,800 bushels of oyster shells containing 14 million baby oysters, or spat, in the water on their leased bottom. The oysters had been spawned by the University of Maryland’s hatchery at Horn Point, then set on shells by a private aquaculture concern in neighboring St. Mary’s County.
Charles Rice, assistant county chief of planning (and no relation to Billy), said the credits to be gained from the farmed oysters will be applied to meet the county’s obligation under its state-issued stormwater permit. Per MDE requirements, he said, the county must put best management practices in place over the next five years sufficient to treat runoff from about 1,000 acres of impervious surfaces, land covered by pavement or buildings.
Charles Rice said that oysters planted by the co-op in June will likely yield only enough nutrient reduction credits to count for treating about 10 acres of impervious surfaces. Assuming no calamities befall the crop, those credits could still be a bargain, considering the costs of more typical measures to treat runoff from developed lands.
Suzanne Dorsey, deputy secretary of MDE, called the Charles County deal “an investment in innovation.” She said she hopes it will inspire others to follow suit.
“We’re not talking about [removing] hundreds of pounds of nitrogen here,” she said. “But we’re talking about a new way for Charles County to ensure their waterways are continuing to be clean.”
She said that oyster farmers may find more opportunities to sell their credits under tweaks in 2021 to Maryland’s Clean Water Commerce Act, under which the state can spend $20 million a year on projects that reduce nutrient and sediment pollution.
The Bay Program also is eyeing the awarding of water quality credits for planting hatchery-reared oysters in sanctuaries and to an even more limited degree for putting them on harvestable reefs.
Co-op members say they will consider their enterprise a success if they see oyster abundance return to the Wicomico River. They plan to leave a portion of what they plant every year to grow and keep reproducing.
“I think it would be unrealistic to think we could see oysters in the river like I saw in my lifetime,” said Billy Rice, who began crabbing at age 10 and divides his time between fishing and farming. But he does believe it’s possible “that we could get them back to a point where [the population] can replenish itself and support a fishery as well as the environmental benefits.”
Meanwhile, Warring, Rice and the others check on their oysters periodically to monitor their growth. Some of the small batches planted in prior years are about ready to harvest.
“We’re going to take every dollar we make, divide it by 12 and share it equally,” Warring said. “It’s something that to me is special about what we’re doing here.”