Ten years ago, oyster aquaculture was barely a blip on the chart of Maryland’s seafood industry. Today, it’s expanded to include entrepreneurs who harvest tens of thousands of bushels of oysters annually while branching out into other, related businesses.
There’s Hoopers Island Oyster Company operating in a cavernous warehouse just outside of Cambridge where they make cages for growing oysters in the water column, tanks and an aluminum tumbler with different sized holes that washes, separates and grades oysters.
“We do all types of gear from tumblers to bottom cages, to floating gear. We have laser graders, sorters, mesh bags, floats. Anything you could possibly need on a farm, we got it,” says Chris Wyer, the sales and fabrication manager.
He says they started about 10 years ago just trying to grow “top notch oysters” in Tedious Creek on Hoopers Island. And as they went on, they developed equipment to help with growing and processing the oysters.
“And then different farms would stop by and see what we were doing and they’d say, ‘Oh, I want one of those.’ And then we quickly saw the equipment we were developing there was a demand for it out in the industry,” he explains.
Now, they sell the gear made in this warehouse to oyster growers all over the world as well as seed oyster and larvae to other aquaculture operations and market size oysters to seafood wholesalers.
Natalie Ruark, who runs the nursery operation on Tedious Creek, where they grow those oysters, says they’re a vertically integrated company that tries to service any need that an aquaculture operation might have.
“An aquaculture farm really depends on a producer like us to provide seed or larvae for them so that they can create a market product for half shell raw bars, or the shucking market or whatever they decide to do with their own business model,” she says.
Maryland began leasing bay bottom to oyster growers as far back as the 19th century. But most of those leases had gone dormant until 10 years ago when former Governor Martin O’Malley moved to revive the program.
The idea was partly to help with bay restoration because oysters are filter feeders that help clean the water and do even more.
“Oyster reefs and oyster farms also trap a lot of sediment,” Ruark explains. “So anything that’s suspended sediment in the water column gets caught in those cages in those reefs and allows that to become more habitat, you know, for young fish, crabs, shrimp, whatever’s around and it’s also improving that water quality in that capacity.”
The program also would provide some economic help for watermen hard pressed by the dwindling oyster population.
Now, according to state figures, there are 468 active leases covering nearly 7,600 acres of bay bottom. And, like the Hoopers Island folks, there are a growing number of oyster entrepreneurs looking to add to their business portfolios.
Ted Cooney, of Madhouse Oysters, another Hoopers Island operation, says those who got into the business in the early days began to realize that some of their processes or equipment weren’t doing the job as efficiently as possible.
“And so they begin thinking about how to either improve equipment that exists or invent something that doesn’t exist to save the backs of the guys that do the job or to get things more efficiently to market or whatever it may be,” he said.
Cooney says he’s developing some new equipment but hasn’t been able to bring it to market. He has, however, come up with a marketing arrangement with Baltimore’s RavenBeer. They use some of his oysters in the brewing process to make a beer they named for his company.
He says he and brewery representatives met at festivals over the years and started talking about using oysters in a beer recipe.
“They finally decided to do it, so we collaborated on that and they came out with their Madhouse Oyster Stout.”
Stephen Demczuk, the founder of RavenBeer, says it’s a mutual collaboration that has benefitted both companies.
“His name is on the can, his logos on the label of the Imp and the Madhouse Oyster Stout,” Demczuk says. “We promote him every time we serve the beer at events, stuff like that. So, we teamed up on many events to pour and shuck oysters together.”
Patrick Hudson started farming oysters in St. Jerome Creek in Saint Mary’s County 10 years ago. Now, he runs an upscale restaurant in Clipper Mill off the Jones Falls Expressway just a few miles from where he grew up.
He has raw bars in the Mount Vernon Marketplace downtown and in Arlington, VA. And he’s still supplying seafood distributors with farm-raised oysters from St. Jerome Creek for restaurants and raw bars throughout the country.
“I always envisioned a restaurant as being kind of the extension of the farm,” Hudson says. “We like to say straight from the source and it kind of always was part of the plan, part of the dream.”
He says there’s something about delivering oysters from his own farm directly to his restaurant and to the customer’s plate that can be a big draw.
“To have the freshest oysters in town and to have the level of kind of consistency and to know where their food is coming from and to know that the ownership of the restaurant is the same as the ownership of the farm and it’s all kind of a cohesive unit.”
But there is a glitch in this otherwise rosy picture. It’s the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ted Cooney at Madhouse Oysters says oyster growers thought the heavy rains of two years ago that sharply reduced salinity in the bay and all but wiped out oyster reproduction for a year was bad. But that didn’t kill the demand.
Now, there are plenty of oysters to sell to restaurants and raw bars, but the restaurants are emphasizing carry-out operations. And, as Cooney says, “Nobody buys oysters for carryout from the restaurant.”
Even if a restaurant’s surviving on carry-out sales, “people don’t take a dozen oysters out the door.”
Hudson says they offered oysters to go at his restaurant without a lot of success.
“We shuck oysters and put them into to- go containers on ice and we have the cocktail sauce and lemon and all that,” he said. “So, it is possible. It’s just not something your average person sort of thinks of doing.”
He and Cooney say they’re taking it one week at a time, operating with skeleton crews, trying to get to what Hudson calls “the other side of this thing.”
Meanwhile, the crews at Hoopers Island Oyster Company are continuing to turn out cages and floats and upwellers and mesh bags for oyster entrepreneurs in Maryland and around the world.