As a young waterman, Mike Lindemon dreamed of having his own oyster lease. He wanted to work his own bottom, plant his own shell, set his own hours. For a man who fell off scaffolding while working at a nuclear power plant and still nurses the injuries 40 years later, the dream did not seem unreasonable. But it was painfully out of reach.
The Nanticoke River, where Lindemon had property, had been the base of operations for H. B. Kennerly and Sons, one of the state’s most successful oyster companies. Kennerly had thousands of acres under lease, making it next to impossible for a waterman to obtain one if he didn’t work under contract for Kennerly. And Lindemon had no luck obtaining a lease elsewhere. For more than a century, nearly every other waterfront county in the state outlawed private leases.
Kennerly sold his oyster company in 1978. Nanticoke Foods, a Kennerly subsidiary operating out of the Nanticoke harbor, shut its doors for good about a decade ago. The state hadn’t been collecting rent on its shellfish leases, and many of the lease owners had long since died. The state changed the aquaculture law in 2009 and opened up much of Maryland’s bottom to leases for growing oysters. It also reclaimed many unused leases and made them available to individuals who promised to work them.
After the law changed in 2009, Lindemon and his nephew, Eric Wisner, applied for a few leases. Now, the pair has nearly 500 acres of bottom under lease, making their operation among the largest oyster farms in the state.
Wisner and Lindemon have hundreds of millions of oysters on the bottom of the Nanticoke River. They use spat-on-shell techniques to set the animals — with more than a dozen larvae setting on each oyster shell — and they report that more than 90 percent of their oysters are surviving. Wisner has maximized every tank he can find to set oysters with the larvae he gets for free from the University of Maryland. Friends joke that, if he finds a hot tub on the Shore that no one’s using, he might try to use it for setting oysters.
Wisner’s driveway is piled high with shell — he’s put 15,000 bushels’ worth in the water already to help his own oysters grow as well as jump-start the native population. Lindemon and Wisner say they care about making money, and they are. But for these lifelong Marylanders who have always enjoyed duck hunting and fishing, cleaning up the water is a big draw.
“One of my goals is just to replenish all I can get out in that river,” Lindemon said of their business plan. “I’ve got a half century on the water. It’s just been bred into us: the things oysters can do for the environment.”
Lindemon and Wisner don’t do much with their leased grounds in the winter; they’re working the wild fishery and saving their own crop for the spring and summer months, when demand is high and product is a bit scarce.
On a recent December afternoon, Wisner sailed out to a piece of bamboo marking his lease in the Nanticoke’s flat, cold waters. He lowered a dredge to check on the oysters he planted in June. He expected small oysters. He found big ones.
He couldn’t wait to tell his uncle that the seed they’d planted had reached market size — 3 inches — in just six months.
“It’s like Christmas morning when you’re a little kid,” said Wisner, a former logger. “It’s just phenomenal. It’s fascinating because when you plant the larvae they look like pepper, or coffee grounds. You just can’t believe it.”
No one is happier to see oyster farmers in the Nanticoke than Don Webster, an aquaculture specialist for Maryland Sea Grant who helped push to change the state law. Webster has helped to connect dozens of would-be aquaculturists with low-interest loans, grants, seed, larvae, advice and technical expertise. Kennerly, who died in 2010, was a mentor to Webster. The Nanticoke oyster magnate, a quiet philanthropist who helped many in the area, had long dreamed of seeing his river once again thick with oysters.
For decades, Webster said, talking about leasing bottom at watermen’s gatherings was “like cussing in church.” To see Lindemon and others embrace the business is thrilling.
“Watermen know how to solve problems,” Webster said. “They’re very innovative. We always knew you could do a leasing program here in the Chesapeake, and it’s been great fun seeing it happen.”
Among the innovations Wisner and Lindemon developed is a reusable shell bag. Most oystermen put their shells in a mesh bag, then put the bag in a tank full of larvae and let the larvae set. A few days later, they remove the bags, take the spat-on-shell oysters to the lease, cut open the bags and put the shells down. The men didn’t like wasting the bags, so they went to a shop in Crisfield where they had bought crab pots in the past. They picked up some wire that was softer than the kind used for pots, and fashioned it into reusable containers for the shell.
Other watermen innovators abound. Johnny Shockley of Hooper’s Island, a longtime oysterman, crabber and boat-builder, constructed a boat with a tumbler attached. The tumbler helps shape the oysters. It takes off the barnacles and gives them a good, round cup. Because it’s on a boat, Shockley takes the tumbler to the oysters rather than bringing the oysters on shore. Mike Gadwill, a longtime commercial fisherman on Virginia’s Northern Neck, turned a Home Depot cement mixer into a shell-washer.
Both Maryland and Virginia have much to celebrate this season. Maryland has nearly 3,500 acres of bottom under lease and 190 acres of water-column leases — oysters grown in floats on top of the water. In both states, the wild oyster harvest is also looking good.
Karl Roscher, the director of aquaculture for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said that oysters like those Wisner saw on his Nanticoke lease are “pretty much across the board,” in part because the lease bottoms planted with oyster shells are attracting wild spat from the excellent spat sets of 2010, 2011 and 2102. The 2013 spat set is average, Roscher said, which is still good news after many years of poor sets and not enough shell to accept what did survive.
The oyster diseases that devastated the populations in the 1950s and 1980s are still around. But scientists have been hard at work to find disease-resistant strains of oysters — both sterile triploids and reproducing diploids — that taste good, grow fast and don’t die. These strains can outrun disease, growing to market size in a year instead of the three years that has been typical for wild oysters. That is why Wisner’s 3-inch oyster, after just six months, was so exciting; it exceeded even his most optimistic predictions.
Both states have offered aspiring oyster aquaculturists low-interest loans, technical assistance, grants, free larvae and access to equipment. Virginia also distributed 1 billion state-owned shells throughout the state waters.
Virginia announced in November that the October 2012–October 2013 oyster season was its best since 1987. Oystermen harvested 406,000 bushels. More than half — 257,000 — came from privately leased bottom.
So far, the 2013 season is following that trajectory, said Virginia Marine Resources Commission spokesman John M. R. Bull. Watermen are reporting that they are catching their limit daily, sometimes by 10 a.m.
“After so many decades of bad news for oysters in Virginia, we have plenty of good news,” Bull said. “Seems like the future is pretty rosy at this point.”
It seems that way for Lindemon, now 64, and finally in control of his destiny.
“That was one of the things I wanted, my own grounds,” he said, “and I finally get them.”