GIRDLETREE -- Under the briny waters of this rural Worcester County hamlet, Maryland's fledgling aquaculture industry is getting its sea legs.
Here, along the sandy bottom of Chincoteague Bay just south of Ocean City, Steve and Christy Gordon have planted millions of clams on beds leased from the state. The couple hope to take a piece of an industry that, in neighboring Virginia, produced close to $30 million for clam farmers during the past year alone.
The Gordons' plan to eventually grow and sell enough clams to become a significant supplier to East Coast businesses might seem like a pipe dream in a place where the waters are known more for rampant pollution and shellfish diseases.
But many scientists think that entrepreneurs such as the Gordons are the best hope to bring filter-feeding shellfish back into Maryland waters and revive a seafood industry that has long relied on public subsidies.
For the first time, Maryland is encouraging people like the Gordons to lease a piece of state-owned bottom and grow their own clams and oysters. The General Assembly passed a law last year to streamline the bureaucratic process of applying for lease-bottom permits, and scientists at the University of Maryland are offering their expertise to growers.
State officials believe that a successful aquaculture industry would create jobs, return clams and oysters to Maryland waters and help filter away pollution in the process. The new Maryland Aquaculture Coordinating Council is charged with recommending how the state can help such businesses succeed.
"We've got to find a good way to get more shellfish in the bays," said Don Webster, a University of Maryland agricultural specialist and chairman of the council. "In Maryland, we have always relied on taxpayer dollars to do it, but that's kind of fickle."
The state effort is running into opposition from some waterfront landowners, who don't want clam farms obstructing the shoreline, and from some watermen, who fear the farms would make it even harder for them to earn a living from the sea.
But Steve Gordon is convinced of aquaculture's potential. On a recent stormy day, the 48-year-old Perry Hall native waded out to his leased bed and raked up a handful of clams that were seeds just a few months ago.
"I can assure you it's going to work. It's already working," Gordon said.
Scientists and government officials in both Maryland and Virginia praise aquaculture. It costs a state little, brings jobs to areas that the seafood industry has abandoned and creates a year-round fishery. It has long been the way of doing business in such places as France and Washington state that have strong shellfish economies.
"Aquaculture is not the future of oyster harvests. It's the present," said Mark Luckenbach, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science professor who has tracked the decline of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. "To the best of my knowledge, there are no wild oyster fisheries in the world that aren't going in the same direction as ours."
Yet the push for aquaculture is a huge departure for Maryland, which for centuries has relied on a commons approach to its bay waters and bottom. Under that system, watermen apply for licenses to fish for wild crabs, oysters, clams or fish. In recent years, state officials have spent millions of dollars to put native oysters in the Chesapeake, both to filter the water and to give watermen a crop to harvest. Maryland is also spending more than $2 million to study whether to introduce an Asian oyster species.
Virginia has taken a different approach.
Since the late 1800s, Virginia has offered leases to watermen who pay a small sum for the right to plant shellfish on the bottom of a bay or river and to harvest the crop when it reaches market size. Virginia's clam industry, which the state's Agriculture Department estimated at $20 million in 2003, has since grown to more than $30 million a year, officials say.
But 20 years ago, Virginia had almost no clam aquaculture. What it had were a lot of oystermen with thousands of acres of leased beds who found that they couldn't grow oysters anymore because diseases were killing the shellfish.
To stay in business, longtime oysterman C. Chadwick Ballard Sr., whose Ballard Fish and Oyster Co. had 17,000 acres under lease, decided to try growing clams. Clams are more resistant to disease, and they were thought to thrive in the high-salinity waters that had nurtured Virginia's oysters for so many years. Ballard hired Michael Peirson, a young doctoral student from North Carolina State University, to build his clam business.
Peirson and his wife, Lee, established a hatchery on Ballard's 300-acre farm along Cherrystone Creek near Cape Charles. With their toddler son looking on from a dry aquarium, they mated adult clams and monitored their seed. They hired a crew to plant the clams on the creek bottom in beds staked off by poles and to rake in the harvest when the clams reached market size two years later.