For 35 of the 38 years that Don Webster has worked as a University of Maryland extension agent, he's been trying to move the state into oyster aquaculture.
He came close when William Donald Schaefer was governor in the 1990s, when the public fishery nearly collapsed under the weight of two parasitic diseases. But ultimately, the state's watermen resisted it. He thought the state might get there in 2004, under Robert Ehrlich Jr., the state's first Republican governor in nearly 40 years. But while the Ehrlich administration made some progress, the few aquaculture businesses that developed during his tenure could hardly be called an industry.
The obstacles were mighty: a nearly 100-year-old law that forbade leasing Bay or river bottom in most counties, a byzantine permit process that made applying for a lease maddening, and a large group of watermen (and the politicians who represented them) reared on a public fishery who saw little reason to change the status quo.
But Webster never stopped pushing, and he eventually found powerful allies in Gov. Martin O'Malley and his natural resources secretary, John Griffin. In 2009, the Maryland legislature passed a law that stripped many of the provisions against aquaculture and allowed a leasing system in the state.
In 2011, Maryland streamlined its permitting process so that applicants have to secure their lease from only one agency - the Department of Natural Resources - instead of half a dozen. And late last year, the Army Corps of Engineers finally agreed to allow Maryland to issue general permits for aquaculture just as Virginia does, so that applicants receive their leases in four months instead of 14.
Since the department began accepting applications in September 2010, a total of 129 individuals or companies have applied for leases. About a third of these leases have been granted; the rest are in progress. Some have been withdrawn.
Half of the applicants hold tidal fishing licenses -meaning they are, or were, watermen. To Webster, that is the most exciting part, and not only because they were the hardest group to win over.
"One of the things I have always wanted to see was, if watermen got into aquaculture, what kind of innovations they would introduce to make it better," Webster said.
He was not disappointed. Two watermen working out of the Nanticoke River, Eric Wisner and Mike Lindemon, did not like working with shell bags. They invented a vinyl-coated wire basket to put their shells in when they set their oysters on their lease.
Johnny Shockley, a Hooper's Island waterman, grows oysters in cages for the half-shell market. He was inspired by operations in Virginia that tumbled the oysters to keep them round. Rather than bringing the oysters back to shore to work on them, Shockley outfitted a boat with tumblers and brought the equipment to the oysters.
Another waterman is building a tumbler with a timer that farmers can rent if they are small operators and don't want to buy their own. Still another has experimented with bigger dredges to help rehabilitate the bottom for more successful plantings.
"If I was a youngster, I'd be tickled to get into this," said Ben Parks, a longtime waterman and charter boat fisherman who serves on the Aquaculture Coordinating Council and has connected several Dorchester County watermen with the resources to get started.
It helps that the state has made an effort to aid watermen. The Maryland Agriculture and Resource Based Industry Development Corporation, also known as MARBIDCO, provided $1.7 million in funding for 26 aquaculture projects, most of which will help watermen.
The state is also providing a free "oyster hatchery short course" for Maryland and Virginia residents at the Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge to teach entrepreneurs how to provide seed oysters and larvae to supply oyster growers. Webster has helped prospective growers obtain grants for upweller systems and remote-setting equipment to start growing oysters.
"I think we've exceeded expectations," said Karl Roscher, the state's aquaculture coordinator. About a year ago, Roscher moved from the state's department of agriculture to its department of natural resources. He has been tweaking the permitting process to make it even easier for applicants. One coming innovation: a web-based tool so applicants can determine which parts of the Bay bottom are suitable for leasing. Some bottom is designated for sanctuaries, and some is part of the public fishery. Some may not be the most fertile ground for growing shellfish.
Roscher estimates that about 100 oyster-related businesses are in various stages of development. Some are already growing oysters; some are making equipment; and some are growing seed. The state does not yet have a private hatchery to supply the industry, but that may be coming, too.
Shockley is in the process of building a salinization plant so that growers can salt, or "Chincotize" their oysters, without having to drive down to the Coastal Bays.
At present, Shockley has to drive two hours each way to to salt his oysters at a fellow oyster and clam grower's place at Public Landing in Worcester County, MD.
Shockley and his partner, Ricky Fitzhugh, had their share of permit headaches. But their business, Chesapeake Gold, now sells 2,500 oysters a week and employs five people. Among their customers are the Old Ebbitt Grille in Washington, DC, and its chain of Clyde's restaurants throughout the DC area. Shockley has helped close to a dozen Hoopers Islanders start oyster businesses; most are watermen, but at least one is a retired urologist who is going into business with his son.
"The state took the initiative. I don't think they realized how fast we were ready to move," said Shockley, who was one of the first watermen to express interest in oyster farming. "We really pushed the envelope."
Asked if there was a limit to the state's appetite for oyster businesses, Webster referred to a study University of Maryland economist Doug Lipton conducted for the Environmental Impact Study on oysters several years ago. Lipton's work indicated that Maryland could add 2.6 million more bushels of oysters into the marketplace without affecting profitability.
"I will agree with him, until we hit that 2.6 million," Webster said. "And then, I know we can go even higher."