Moneymaking on the half-shell

Our view : Maryland's shellfish aquaculture industry holds great potential - if it's cultivated

August 24, 2008

In recent years, Maryland watermen have harvested clams and oysters from Atlantic coastal bays averaging slightly more than $350,000 in total dockside value. This year, entrepreneurs from the neighboring Virginia Eastern Shore will bring in about $30 million. That's a lot of clams.

The difference is one state has a robust aquaculture industry and the other does not. Virginia's hard-shell clams are born in a hatchery and tended to in beds leased from the state until they grow large enough to market. Maryland watermen used hydraulic dredges to haul in wild stocks that are now so depleted that coastal bay dredging will be banned beginning Oct. 1.

As Gov. Martin O'Malley observed during a recent clam farm tour, it's time Maryland caught up with Virginia. It may hold the best hope of reviving the state's flagging seafood industry, particularly clams and oysters. But to accomplish this, the governor and lawmakers will have to take several steps, the first and perhaps most important of which is to provide thousands of acres of desirable growing areas for lease. That may sound simple, but it breaks with a couple of hundred years of tradition, and watermen have long resisted the competition. Next, the state will need to nurture greater private investment.

Ideally, aquaculture will attract unemployed watermen, but they may not have the money to invest in a start-up operation, so loan or grant programs may be required. Providing enough seed clams and oysters could also pose a challenge. The state may need to underwrite a hatchery - at least until the industry grows large enough and private investors step forward.

Objections have been raised, though. A fledgling clam operation near Ocean City has raised the ire of waterfront landowners who aren't pleased to see water near their homes set aside for private use - or the poles and nets that stake it out. But such problems can be overcome.

Shellfish aquaculture could potentially provide dozens if not hundreds of needed jobs. The recent declines in crabbing have made these opportunities vital. And as filter feeders, clams and oysters even have a role to play in cleaning up the nutrient-heavy waters of the Chesapeake and coastal bays. Nurturing such creatures is too rewarding an opportunity to pass up.

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