Aquaculture challenges commercial watermen A Special Report


November 08, 1990|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Evening Sun Staff

In Thursday's Evening Sun, it was reported that a contractor received all of the $3 million the state spends on its oyster promulgation program. Actually, the contractor gets only part of the money.

Dawn breaks over the inky surface of the Chester River as George O'Donnell readies his oyster boat for the day's harvest.

He positions his vessel alongside about 20 others that bob above an oyster bar. As the sun climbs over the horizon, the watermen go to work.


Some lower long tongs into the shallows and scoop the oysters from the bottom. O'Donnell works with a diver, Denny Rafter, who picks the oysters from the bar by hand.

For six hours, O'Donnell methodically lowers wire crates to the bottom and hauls them up after the diver has filled them with oysters.

On deck, a crewman quickly sorts the oysters, chops away the barnacles and mussels growing on them and tosses the oysters into a bushel basket. When 30 baskets are full, the day's work is done.

O'Donnell embodies a way of life practiced for generations on Chesapeake Bay. But the tradition is being challenged by an emerging industry called aquaculture, which has more in common with farming than fishing.

In a shed on marshy land in Somerset County, Max Chambers reaches into a tank of swirling water and retrieves a handful of tiny shells. They are the offspring of the oysters he has bred.

When the oysters are a bit larger, Chambers will put them in mesh trays and set them outside in the waters of the Manokin River. Then, if disease doesn't kill them, they will be sold to other farmers who will grow them until they are large enough to be eaten.

Chambers calls watermen like O'Donnell "buffalo hunters" and says it's time they stopped stripping the bay of its dwindling supply of oysters. Chambers says that one way to conserve the bay's resources is through aquaculture, in which businessmen grow seafood instead of catching it.

"I think there's great hope for aquaculture," he says. "But we have to change a social philosophy."

O'Donnell, the waterman, wants to preserve a way of life that his forefathers practiced 150 years ago. He wants to continue harvesting crabs and oysters from the bay and its tributaries. And he is not convinced that man can produce a better oyster than nature.

While waterman like O'Donnell say they would be willing to invest in aquaculture if it proves profitable, they fear that in the meantime, unrestricted efforts to promote aquaculture could put them out of business.

Already the state's approximately 10,000 watermen have seen their industry jeopardized by shoreline development, disease, overharvesting and pollution.

"If you see something work for 150 years, you hate to see it changed so much that it doesn't work," O'Donnell says.

But David Bower, whose company grows oysters in trays in a St. Mary's County creek, believes there is room for a compromise: Watermen could practice aquaculture to supplement their income.

Bower began the St. George Oyster Co. two years ago and expects to produce a million oysters this year and make a profit.

Waterman actually were among the first aquaculturalists in the state. In the late 19th century, Maryland began leasing some underwater land for oyster production. These lands were called "bare bottom" lands because oysters did not grow there naturally.

Waterman were among those who leased the bottoms, planted oysters, waited for them to mature and then harvested them.

Besides oysters, today's aquaculture in Maryland yields softshell crabs, crawfish, aquatic plants, lobsters and several kinds of finfish including hybrid striped bass, catfish, trout, tilapia and perch. Maryland has 125 to 150 aquaculture operations, which this year are expected to sell seafood products worth nearly $10.6 million -- about one-fifth the value of seafood from commercial fishing.

The aquaculture businesses range from Hunting Creek Farm in Thurmont, which has grown goldfish for aquariums and outdoor ponds for 67 years, to Martek Corp. in Columbia, which raises fTC microscopic algae for biomedical research.

And there are many entrepreneurs who only recently have started aquaculture operations.

Near Crisfield, for example, Martin Sterling is successfully raising thousands of pounds of Louisiana crawfish in plywood trays in a shed behind his house. Within a year he expects to be producing 25,000 to 30,000 pounds and earning $50,000 to $70,000.

In northern Baltimore County, in a shed formerly used to grow mushrooms, Frank Tiralla is growing trout in tanks of cold, swirling water.

As customers wait, Tiralla scoops fish out of a 5-gallon bucket, whacks them over the head a few times with the butt of a butcher knife, and slits them open. They will be smoked for dinner that night.

As a boy, Tiralla raised tropical fish and sold them to pet stores. His more recent venture into aquaculture began with a wading pool in his front yard. Last fall, he put gold, brown and brook trout into the tanks he built at the former mushroom farm.

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