For the first time in its 55-year history of planting oysters to help watermen with their harvest, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is hiring private oyster growers to help it seed the Chesapeake Bay.

Prior to the change, the University of Maryland Horn Point Hatchery handled the seed and shell operations for both oyster sanctuaries and harvest bars. Using state money and a portion of charges levied on oystermen, the department worked through the Oyster Recovery Partnership to distribute Horn Point’s seed oysters in areas watermen thought would produce the best harvests.

But this year, department officials worked with the Oyster Recovery Partnership to identify 11 private growers interested in setting oyster spat on shell and then planting it in the Bay and its tributaries. Five bid. Four received the contracts to plant oysters in locations that county oyster committees will designate. 

The four growers who received seed contracts are Maryland Watermen’s Association President Robert T. Brown and his wife, who own Shop Cove Aquaculture in St. Mary’s County; Harris Seafood of Queen Anne’s County; Witt Seafood of Anne Arundel County; and Jon Farrington, who owns Johnny Oysterseed in Calvert County. 

In total, the contracts are worth $850,000.

The Browns had an earlier contract with the Oyster Recovery Partnership to seed a portion of the Upper Bay as part of a study to determine which method more quickly restores oysters: power-dredging oyster bars to “clean” sediment off the bottom or planting hatchery seed. DNR officials said that project was not competitively bid and came through the recovery partnership, which is not required to follow the state’s procurement process. Completed last year, that project cost $72,000.

The contracts give fledgling aquaculture operations a chance to earn more money and a guaranteed income if they can continue their supply.

“It makes smart business sense to grow the aquaculture industry, to augment the income, while continuing to support the public fishery,” said Stephan Abel, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, which was set up as a bridge among all parties interested in restoring oysters. Since 2009, when Maryland changed its law to allow aquaculture in every county and bring down the barriers to leasing bottom, DNR officials have helped nascent oyster growers find their footing. For example, the department designated a portion of the $15 million crab disaster relief to low-interest loans to help watermen transition into aquaculture. The fund was established six years ago when crab harvests were sharply cut in response to a very low crab population. Those loan funds were only available to those who held a tidal fishing license — primarily watermen. The seed contracts were opened to everyone who had the capacity to set the oysters.

The numbers of oyster farmers and watermen who have the ability to set oysters is growing, thanks to training programs offered in coordination with the Oyster Recovery Partnership; the University of Maryland Horn Point Laboratory; and Don Webster, an aquaculture specialist with Maryland Sea Grant.

The change is important because some watermen still need to be convinced that planting hatchery-raised oyster seed is the best way to both boost the harvest and restore the ecological benefits of oysters. 

When the oyster harvests began to nosedive in the 1950s because of disease and overharvesting, the state stepped in with what it called its repletion program. The department levied a surcharge on each licensee, and a tax on each bushel harvested. At the end of each season, the department returned that money to the oyster committees that each waterfront county had set up. The repletion oysters were supposed to give watermen a crop to harvest during the years when oysters weren’t growing well on their own. Oysters spawn every year, but the lower-salinity Upper Chesapeake Bay usually gets an excellent spat set only every six or seven years. How many of those oysters live until harvest age is dependent on many uncontrollable factors, including precipitation, silt, sediment and disease.

Using the funds, the oyster committees directed department officials to plant oysters where watermen wanted to harvest. The department moved seed and shell around the Chesapeake, and in the process it inadvertently spread oyster diseases.

Around 2005, the repletion program hit a snag. Recreational fishermen said they would protest a permit sought by the department to dredge shell off Poole’s Island in the Upper Bay. Already facing a shell shortage, department officials knew they couldn’t continue. Paltry oyster harvests also left little money for plantings because the bushel tax and surcharges were low. In 2004, for example, the oyster harvest was only 26,000 bushels, as opposed to 422,000 in 2014.

Meanwhile, the Horn Point Laboratory was perfecting its processes. By 2007, it was raising more than half a billion spat-on-shell oysters each year. ORP staff persuaded watermen to turn down the state’s meager repletion money and instead accept a system of managed reserves. Under the system, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would work with the state and the ORP to plant hatchery-raised oysters on bars that would be open to harvest when the oysters were 4 inches instead of the legal size of 3 inches. That meant watermen had to wait an extra year, but they would be rewarded with excellent oysters. (The partners later changed the size limit to 3.5 inches.)

The project helped to convince watermen that hatchery-raised oysters would work. It was not continued, though, because the federal and state agencies moved to focus more on sanctuaries and restoration.

Even without the managed reserves, the Department of Natural Resources continued to use Horn Point hatchery seed to replant the bars at the oyster committee’s request.

Money for the work comes from the $300 annual license surcharge, the $1 tax on each bushel of oysters and mitigation money from the Maryland Department of Transportation.

DNR officials said the Maryland Department of Transportation money began flowing in after 1997, when the Maryland Port Administration planned to dredge and then dump sediment to clear the shipping channels. Watermen and citizens opposed the open dumping, and eventually the legislature forbade it. But in the negotiations, former Maryland Watermen’s Association President Larry Simns secured mitigation funding. Even though the open dumping never happened, DNR officials said the funding came through in recognition that dredging in some places can disrupt harvest. The current agreement provides $2 million every year to the DNR until 2019, about half of which the department distributes to the oyster committees. The rest goes to restoration work. Since 1997, the transportation department has put about $30.5 million into oyster restoration, according to spokesman Richard Scher. 

The bushel tax/surcharge money is a smaller pot. Last year, it added up to $762,200, according to DNR numbers.

Farrington, an engineer who has been cultivating spat-on-shell oysters for seven years, said he was thrilled to receive the contract to reseed bars for Calvert, Somerset, Wicomico and Talbot counties.

“Clearly, this procurement will be a boon for my business, and I think it’s great that aquaculture and traditional watermen can cooperate in this way,” he said.

If Farrington continues to receive contracts like this one, he will likely have to hire more workers in a part of the state where jobs have been scarce. The job entails setting 76 million spat on about 16 tractor-trailer-size loads of shell.

A recent technical paper from the University of Maryland showed that, while hatchery seed is more expensive, it yields far more oysters than moving existing seed and shell around the Bay through programs like repletion.