Oystermen on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are upset with their options when it comes to purchasing oyster shells from the state. The shells are becoming an increasingly scarce and costly commodity throughout the region.

An article that ran in The Star Democrat of Easton, Md., last week aired the concerns of a group of oystermen from Kent, Queen Anne’s and Dorchester counties who prefer planting fresh shells on oyster bars to using shells with spat already set from the state’s hatchery or purchasing fossilized shells shipped in from Florida.

They voiced their concerns enough that state Sen. Richard Colburn, who represents this portion of the Shore, presented a bill that would require the state Department of Natural Resources to authorize local oyster committees to purchase up to 400,000 bushels of fresh oyster shells before they’ve gone through the spat process at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Laboratory.

But state officials say there’s a reason they don’t want to simply disperse the depleted amount of oyster shell that is available to the Bay in hopes that oyster spat will set on it naturally.

“If we do that we’ll run out of shell,” said Mike Naylor, DNR’s shellfish program director. “We need to save that shell.”

Naylor said the state has planted “tens of millions” of oyster shells for Maryland oyster fishermen over the past 60 years. But, with aquaculture’s explosive growth following decades of sharp decline, the state is running out of stores of shells and has to purchase what’s available from local shucking houses.

The department developed a policy last year that it won’t put shells into the water without the hatchery first setting spat on the shells. Naylor said this method is more expensive, but results in 10,000 spat for every bushel of oyster shells. That’s compared to an average of 100 spat per bushel of oyster shells that set naturally when dispersed in the Bay, as the protesting oystermen prefer.

“We are obligated at stewards of the state funds to do things that are the most cost effective for all Maryland taxpayers,” Naylor said.

Chuck White, president of the Kent County Watermen’s Association, told the Star Democrat that his organization wants to spend “our own money” on the fresh oyster shells that oystermen prefer and have historically used, without having to pay for the spat to first be set by the hatchery.

White was referring to a fishery fund, a percentage of which comes from a tax on the oysters sold, while part also comes from a subsidy to the state fishery from the Maryland Department of Transportation.

DNR purchases between 150,000 and 200,000 bushels a year from shucking houses, which goes to supply the state’s residential oyster planting and oyster restoration programs as well as the broader industry.

The number of shells available from shucking houses has declined in recent years as industry oystermen have begun bypassing the state and purchasing shell directly from the houses at higher prices.

This year, the department also purchased more than 2 million bushels of fossilized oyster shells from Florida that were brought up by train. Naylor said these also were offered to the watermen at $6 a bushel and could be purchased with the tax funds set aside for them, but the watermen prefer fresh shells and declined the offer.

If the watermen were able to plant the fresh shells without spat on them, the cost comes in between $3 and $4.50 a bushel compared to $30 a bushel for fresh shell with spat from the hatchery. But, when the amount of oysters harvested from each method is considered, the spat-on-shell variety garners more than 300 oysters per dollar while the clean shell approach results in 30 to 50 oysters per dollar.

While the upfront costs per bushel are less, Naylor says that doesn’t factor in the reality that oyster spat doesn’t set naturally in Maryland waters the way that it once did for Eastern Shore oystermen, many of whom have been harvesting here for generations.

Virginia shells

In Virginia, the shortage of usable oyster shell is just as much a reality for the state’s larger aquaculture industry, but the factors are a bit different.

The commonwealth doesn’t set spat on oyster shells for the industry as its waters have a better ratio for naturally setting spat. But that doesn’t mean the state is immune to the heightened demand for oyster shells across the region.

Shells are “getting more scarce every year — at the same time that both industries in both states are growing,” said Jim Wesson, department head of conservation and replenishment at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. “It’s that factor of growing pains of an industry that has compressed and is now expanding again.”

Wesson said shells from shucking houses are costing twice what they did three years ago and often go to the highest bidder. Virginia helps ease the shell shortage by dredging shells from fossilized beds in the James River, but those stores won’t last forever.

“That’s something that we worry about,” Wesson said.

He said the state is experimenting with alternative substrates that it could manufacture or reuse that might promote oyster growth, such as ground-up concrete. While concrete has been known to grow oysters, Wesson said the big question is whether oystermen could harvest easily from such a surface.