An investment analyst and a retired teacher are raising much-desired Chincoteague oysters

Water farm for delicacy

December 01, 2005|By CHRIS GUY | CHRIS GUY,SUN REPORTER

Scotts Landing -- David Chamberlain and Luke Breza might seem an unlikely pair to be coaxing a crop of oysters from Maryland coastal waters that haven't harbored the bivalves in years.

But their small aquaculture operation in southern Worcester County near Snow Hill is being watched closely by state environmental officials and has been noticed by consumers, restaurants and raw bars who are willing to pay premium prices for the telltale salty taste of Chincoteague oysters - a delicacy one restaurant owner said reaches "almost cult status this time of year" on the Eastern Shore.

"What we're doing really is farming in the strictest sense," said Breza, 50, an investment analyst who joined Chamberlain, a retired high school shop teacher, to form the Great Eastern Shellfish Co.

"Our oysters are grown in a controlled setting, not caught," Breza said. "The closest business model for us would be a farmer, not a waterman."

The company is small enough that it counts its product individually, rather than by the bushel. This year, Breza and Chamberlain expect to produce about 30,000 oysters and hope for 200,000 or more next year.

In the 1980s, the parasitic diseases Dermo and MSX combined with overharvesting to nearly wipe out the state's oyster stock - in the Chesapeake and in the coastal bays south of Ocean City. Where millions of bushels of oysters were once harvested, Maryland's take last year was 72,000 bushels, up slightly from an all-time low of 26,000 in 2004.

"Now we have maybe 500 watermen out there trying to catch wild oysters, none of them in the coastal bays," said Chris Judy, who heads the shellfish division at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Maybe these two guys and a handful of others who are interested in aquaculture are the trailblazers."

There's no real secret to what makes a Chincoteague oyster, which biologically is the same as other oysters from this region.

The Chincoteague comes from the bay of that name near the Maryland-Virginia border, where the waters mix freely with ocean tides, constantly bathing the shellfish and providing the sought-after salty flavor.

Water clarity remains good enough in Chincoteague Bay that Breza and Chamberlain can easily see their feet when working in chest-deep water, but no wild oysters have been caught there in years.

Unlike watermen, who harvest the bivalves from oyster bars that grow on the bottom, Breza and Chamberlain are nurturing oysters in about 90 rafts made of plastic pipe.

The floats are secured off their dock and spread over 8 acres of water at the end of a pristine peninsula that was the site of a Boy Scout camp in the 1960s.

The process begins when Breza and Chamberlain buy spat (baby oysters the size of BBs) from a Virginia hatchery. The immature oysters begin to form shells and are then placed in mesh bags to protect them from predators while they grow underwater for 18 to 20 months.

They reach market size of 3 to 5 inches in about half the time it takes for oysters to grow to the same size on the bottom oyster bars traditionally harvested by watermen. The longer the oysters grow, the more susceptible they are to disease.

"We think it's very promising," said Richard Bohn, who oversees leases and permits for the Department of Natural Resources.

Aquaculture "seems to be able to beat the time frame of the diseases and grow oysters to market size before the diseases kill them," Bohn said.

He said Chamberlain and Breza aren't growing enough oysters to satisfy some commercial customers, but they are aiming for a smaller market of restaurants and raw bars.

"That's very much a niche market, and it could work well for [a company] their size," Bohn said.

Maryland has only two significant oyster farms, including a decade-old operation in St. Mary's County, Bohn said. But the industry is widespread in Europe, New York and on the West Coast of the United States.

It was Chamberlain who acquired a license and other approvals from a host of state and federal agencies - including the Army Corps of Engineers, DNR, the Maryland Department of the Environment and the state Board of Public Works, among others.

State officials say legislation approved this year should eliminate some of the red tape for those who want to enter the aquaculture industry, speeding an approval process that took Chamberlain more than four years.

Before meeting Breza, Chamberlain, 59, had been working part time as a carpenter to help make ends meet.

Breza, who prospered as a financial trader living in England and France for about 15 years, moved to Easton with his wife and two children about two years ago.

Looking for a business that benefited the environment and still turned a profit, he teamed with Chamberlain last spring. Breza brought operating capital, marketing experience and his labor to the endeavor.

Chamberlain, a one-time industrial arts teacher from New York, designs, builds and maintains the floats and a pumping system that feeds a power wash that cleans the oysters to make them more presentable to consumers.

The company sold 1,000 market-size oysters for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Prices range from $10 a dozen to 50 cents a piece for orders of 100 or more.

"All I had to do was try one and I knew these were the real-deal Chincoteague oyster," said Dennis Covey, general manager of the Rustic Inn restaurant in Easton

"We've just started putting them on the half-shell on our specials menu and they sell like crazy," Covey said. "I saw a guy put Tabasco sauce on one and I almost cringed. You don't need anything extra with these oysters."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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