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Clutched from Chilly Waters: Harvesting oysters during winter’s grip is a rewarding form of aquaculture for an Annapolis-based grower

Dec 22, 2015 09:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Dr. Robert Zellers

It is 7:30 a.m. It is a sunless, dismal, and gloomy morning. At a mere twenty degrees above zero, the wind is howling and blowing at thirty miles per hour, the boat is rocking back and forth, and the river surface is beginning to ice up around the vessel’s perimeter. The combination of cold air and frigid water rapidly stiffens the body’s joints and extremities. The determined waterman is beginning to catch oysters at a steady rate and he is encouraged because he has customers to whom he has promised oysters for that evening. A slight smile comes to his wind burned, weather beaten face as he pulls up another large batch of the shellfish with his numb hands and quickly dumps them on the boat’s culling table. He is oblivious to all of the negative elements around him for he savors the life of being on the water. He knows that this type of existence can be hard and challenging, but he loves being a waterman.

Dave Schwenk grew up locally in Anne Arundel County, moved to Saint Mary’s County for sixteen years, and then returned to the local area eight years ago. He has always been attracted to the communities near the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. He spent so much time on the water as a young boy that his friends said his perspiration was partially brackish in content. Many of his acquaintances were diehard watermen from which he learned to appreciate the value of the bounty which the bay held. Throughout his adolescence he was involved daily in crabbing, fishing, and oystering. He has held numerous jobs over the past three decades, but the magnetism of making a living as a waterman has always returned him to the water way of life.

Aquaculture is the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, and aquatic plants. Aquaculture actually started in Maryland in 1830, so it’s been around for a long time. There was a huge oyster industry up until the 1980s when the Dermo disease killed off oh-so-many oysters. In 2010, the state opened up new grounds for aquaculture and streamlined the permitting process. These two matters, together with making low interest, partially subsidized loans available through the Maryland Agricultural & Resource-Based Industry Development Corporation (MARBIDCO), have significantly advanced the initiative.

The possibility of owning an oyster aquaculture operation was a driving ambition for Dave and it has finally come into fruition. After doing considerable research about the various tributaries around the community of Edgewater in 2010, he was one of the first individuals to seek the leasing of water rights on the South River under Maryland’s relatively new aquacultural lease laws. Dave’s lease is located directly in front of Quiet Waters Park. The boundaries of the lease surround the Fox Point Bar, which is a Maryland Historic Oyster Bar (Yates Survey-1909). This bar had become depleted of oysters until Dave’s firm, with a great deal of sweat equity, restored it and made it, once again, a productive oyster bar. Concurrently, a side benefit and a major positive result, is the submerged millions of oysters in front of the park’s beach, through their natural life cycle, are filtering and cleaning the waters of the area. Amazingly, one single oyster can filter more than 50 gallons of water in 24 hours and is often figuratively referred to as the kidney of the bay.

The Maryland aquaculture water leases are initially granted for twenty years and can be renewed for another twenty years. The state of Maryland charges a $300 application fee and an annual $3.50 per acre charge for a bottom lease. According to Maryland’s Department of Natural Resource’s website, “Shellfish aquaculture start-up expenses can run from $5,000 to more than $100,000 depending on the scope of the enterprise. Obtaining a loan from traditional commercial lenders for aquaculture business projects can be challenging for small enterprises and individuals, considering the two-to-three year growing period between oyster planting and growth to market size, as well as frequently the lack of available business equity and collateral security.” Fortunately, the extensive length of the Maryland water leases allows the aquaculturist an opportunity to develop their business and hopefully recover their investment.

In 2014, the Naptown Oyster Company was founded, which is a small, family-owned firm that grows, harvests, and distributes local Chesapeake Bay oysters to Annapolis area restaurants and directly to the public. Schwenk is the humble and soft-spoken CEO, president of the board of directors, and the only full-time employee. Other family members and friends contribute to the work force in a voluntary and devoted capacity.

The fledgling oyster aquaculture business requires considerable planning, determination, funding and hard work. It is very important to select an area which has the potential to promulgate oysters. The composition of the river bottom must have the capability to successfully foster the growth of the oysters. One of the most essential elements of the aquaculture operation is the preparation of the leased acreage bottom surface. Dave has spent three long and arduous years readying his leased water site. He has spread thousands of bags of fertilized oyster shells over the river bottom. The foundation for an oyster bed is called cultch and it provides a surface, which prevents the seeded oyster from sinking into the bottom and being suffocated. Oysters will not grow in the bay’s muddy, soft, earthen substrate. Oysters grow best by the spat (baby oyster) attaching to the empty shells. According to Dave, “One of the advantages of growing oysters with this approach is that it is a cost effective method of mass producing oysters when done properly.” This process produces oysters which are fairly uniform in size and are highly desirable for the oyster on the half shell that is sought in the local restaurants in the Annapolis area.

The firm is growing the Crassostrea virginica variety of oyster, which is known for its tenderness and distinct flavor. His company acquires the oyster larvae from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Hatchery and his shell from the Maryland Department of Natural Resource’s Piney Point Aquacultural Center. Growers are able to purchase oyster larvae in containers and transport them to their firm’s headquarters or have them delivered to the purchaser’s lease waters. Aged bagged or loose oyster shells can be purchased in the same manner.

Dave then proceeds to the fascinating, time intensive, and complex process of attaching the spat to empty shells often referred to as the spat-on-shell method. This approach begins by purchasing bulk oyster shells bagged in plastic mesh which he delivers to a remote setting facility that houses round, twelve-foot-diameter fiberglass tanks that have bay water circulating through them. (Presently Dave makes use of the remote setting facility operated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Shadyside; in the future he will be creating an operation at a local marina.) Once the bags of shell are placed in the tanks the oyster larvae is introduced, which attaches to the shells. After attaching to the shells, the young oysters, now called spat, begin to grow their own shells. At this point the spat-on-shell are loaded on the firm’s boat, transported to the leased bottom waters and deployed overboard. He also uses another growing method called microcultch, whereby small chips of oyster shell are used instead of large shell halves. The principle is the same; instead of having several oysters growing on a shell, one spat grows on one oyster chip at a time. The oysters are then placed in predator protected cages for the grow-out. With both techniques, the shell encrusted spat are placed in the leased water throughout the summer months.

The Naptown Oyster Company’s business success and vitality rests upon the young spat’s ability to grow to maturity; however, predators of the spat such as a drum, rays, crabs, worms, and oyster drills, take a major toll on a newly planted crop. Dave estimates that anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of the spat will develop into an adult oyster in his leased South River waters—not the type of odds you would like to see at a casino. (A 2007 NOAA report stated that there is a 50 percent mortality rate upon planting the spat and mortality increases as the oyster matures.) The weather can also play havoc with the oyster farming business, conditions such as heavy rain storms; drought and frozen water can halt the collection of the oysters.
Dave has spent a substantial amount of time and has made a considerable financial investment in populating his 25 acre area site. Eyed oyster larvae sell for $210 per million and spat on the shell sells for $3,635 per million at Maryland’s Horn Point Oyster Hatchery. Dave proudly says, “I have planted millions of oysters and I am presently increasing production in 2015 because the oysters are doing well and the demand for them is strong.”

Aquaculture oyster is not like surface land farming where you plant the seed in the spring and harvest the crop in the summer and fall. The standard life cycle of a marketable oyster of three inches in length in local waters is three years. However, in the three-year cultivation period, a single acre of seeded bottom could potentially produce hundreds of bushels of oysters.

The aquacultural business does not exist without considerable oversight, regulations, and laws. The Maryland Department of the Environment monitors the water quality bay-wide for any high levels of harmful bacteria. In that situation, the oysters would no longer be allowed to be harvested. There are no water quality issues at the Naptown Oyster Company’s sites. The firm’s water vessels and operational headquarters are inspected periodically for cleanliness and proper refrigeration facilities by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Dave meticulously maintains daily records on his firm’s operations and also files the required monthly oyster harvest reports with the state. The company must also have a Shellfish Certification from the DHMH in order to sell his catch. One of the challenges of being a leaseholder is dealing with all of the various agencies—such as DNR, MDE, DHMH, FDA, USCG, Army Corps, etc. 

Karl R. Roscher, the assistant director of the DNR Fisheries Service, recently said, “Maryland has taken considerable steps to support shellfish aquaculture development and small businesses like the Naptown Oyster Company. By raising oysters, these growers provide positive benefits to our state by helping to create habitat, improve water quality, support economic growth, and generate incredibly good oysters for consumers to enjoy. It’s great to see Marylanders choosing locally-produced oysters and supporting the hard-working people that have invested in growing oysters.”

Maryland’s regulations for the oyster aquaculturist allow the operator to harvest an unlimited number of bushels a day and they may operate twelve months of the year. There are some special regulations for operation in the summer months because of the warm daily temperatures. Dave’s firm has elected to harvest and sell oysters from October 1st to the end of April.

Dave harvests his oysters with twenty foot long tongs which look like elongated scissors with a rake-like head and weigh approximately 20 pounds. This age-old hand tonging method has existed on the Chesapeake Bay since the 1700s. His hands have a rough, calloused surface caused by repeatedly manipulating the lengthy and heavy tongs and they exhibit the wear and tear of working unprotected outside in all types of weather conditions. He culls the marketable mature oysters and then returns any small oysters or empty shells back into the water. He is regularly on the water at sunrise and often docks his boat at sunset. Needless to say, after a long day, the aches and pain in is his arms keep him awake throughout the night. This is not an occupation for the late riser and early finisher.

“On a good day, the Naptown Oyster Company will harvest 10 to 15 bushels of oysters, more or less, depending on how many orders needed to be filled on that day,” Dave says. This thoughtful, measured approach assures that the customer will receive very fresh and healthy oysters. He then must complete and affix a Farm-Raised Shellfish tag to each container of oysters before leaving the leased area from where the shellfish were harvested. Upon returning to the home base in Edgewater, the Naptown Oyster Company’s oysters are washed, refrigerated, and usually delivered the next day. An increasing number of the prominent regional restaurants have included the Naptown Oyster Company’s locally grown bivalves on their menu.

Because of Dave Schwenk’s fortitude, courage, and entrepreneurship, the Naptown Oyster Company is not only providing oyster lovers with fresh, local oysters for much of the year, but it is also helping to filter and cleanse the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

The author of this article is Dr. Robert W. Zellers, Professor Emeritus, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania.