Kent County’s first oyster farm, which was in limbo for several months, will be getting its gear and oysters into the waters of Maryland’s Chester River this spring.
The oyster farmer, Scott Budden, reached an agreement with the waterman who officially protested his lease, as well as with the neighboring hunting club that hired a prominent local lawyer to oppose it. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which supports aquaculture, but has a process to examine concerns from property owners and other waterway users, helped the parties come to the agreement.
Under the deal, Budden will temporarily begin using the original lease he had wanted, north of Ringgold Point and near the Napley Green Gun Club. He will work to get his oysters in the water while he waits for approval for a second lease adjacent to Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. The new site is out of the way of both the gun club and crab trotliners, who were worried about losing some of their best areas because Budden would be putting down oyster cages. That would make setting lines impossible.
“We should be able to issue his lease soon, just in time to get seed overboard for the start of the growing season,” said Karl Roscher, assistant director of fisheries service for the DNR.
The department’s goal for new permits is a three– or four-month wait; but often, the waits have been six months. In this case, Budden’s new site has resolved a lot of the issues, so Roscher expects a permit can be issued sooner than most. If Budden needs to stay at Ringgold Point longer, the agreement has provisions so the hunting and oyster businesses can co-exist.
Budden called the development “amazing news” and said it will put him on track to have oysters to market in two years. Sterile triploid oysters, the kind most aquaculturists plant, grow at different speeds in Maryland depending on salinity. In the Chester, they could take about 18 months to reach market size. A wild oyster, in contrast, takes three years.
“This is an ideal environment for raising oysters, as they are sheltered from urban and agricultural runoff. In addition, the site receives a salty flush from the Bay and a nutrient-rich flush from the river, both twice daily,” Budden said. “It should yield an excellent oyster.”
The DNR approved Budden’s lease in May 2014. The county had signed off on the project, though it didn’t need county approval. But then waterman Wayne Wilson protested the lease, and Kent County Commissioner Ron Fithian called a public hearing. Fithian, who is also chair of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, has been vocal about his opposition to the DNR’s oyster restoration policies and its restrictions on power-dredging for oysters. But he said that had no bearing on his opinion on this lease.
Budden said he was glad the parties could come to an agreement, not only so he could go forward, but also so other potential oyster farmers could see that compromise was possible. Maryland is contending with several protests on oyster leases from watermen, recreational boat users and adjacent property owners who would rather not have an oyster farm in their view.
“It makes things easier for someone trying to get into the industry. They can look and learn from it,” Budden said. “If you are willing to compromise, there are a lot of things that can be accomplished through negotiation.”