HOOPERS ISLAND While watermen from across the Chesapeake Bay region were busy last year fighting one provision of Gov. Martin O'Malley's oyster restoration plan its expansion of oyster sanctuaries one local waterman was preparing to take advantage of the other key component its increase of aquaculture leasing opportunities.
After spending most of his life as a commercial waterman, harvesting whatever was good that year, Hoopers Island native Johnny Shockley is one of the first Maryland watermen to make the switch to aquaculture, forming Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture Company last year with business partner Ricky Fitzhugh.
"I definitely see this as the wave of the future," Shockley said looking out toward the waters of Tar Bay, where he will begin laying his first cages of genetically modified oysters in June, after about a year of trials and preparation.
Shockley and Fitzhugh are leasing five acres of Tar Bay waters, between Hoopers and Barron islands, from the state. When production begins in those waters this summer, Shockley said, the company is hoping to harvest 1 million of its branded Chesapeake Gold Oysters in the first year. That's about 850,000 more than Shockley harvested yearly as a conventional waterman, he said.
The reason for the expected higher yield rate, Shockley said, is that Chesapeake Gold Oysters are triploids, having three sets of chromosomes, as opposed to diploids, having two sets of chromosomes, like natural oysters. Triploid oysters are reproductively sterile, which leads to both improved growth rates and meat quality in the summer, when diploid oysters spawn, according to 4C's Breeding Technologies Inc., a company that develops, acquires, and markets genetic and breeding technologies for shellfish aquaculture.
"They never get porous or watery because they never spawn," Shockley said of the condition that natural oysters experience before spawning, which makes them virtually inedible at the time.
The higher yield rate also is attributable to the cages in which the oysters grow and are harvested, which protect them from predators and elements that typically challenge natural oysters.
"They're not challenged by the things that natural oysters are," Shockley said of the Chesapeake Gold Oysters, which are placed in cages about six inches off the bottom to grow. "They don't get mudded or silted over."
As a result of the oysters' genetics and the protection provided by the cages, Chesapeake Gold Oysters will be harvestable year-round, Shockley said, giving the company the flexibility to harvest only as the oysters are sold.
"It creates a good situation because we're not stressed with a perishable product," Shockley said.
In addition to controlling supply, harvesting oysters as they sell will allow Shockley and Fitzhugh to control the price, which will be set at about 50 cents per oyster. If the buyers aren't willing to pay the base price, Shockley said, the oysters will simply stay in the cages.
Since production takes about eight to 10 months from when the larvae, or spat, are set to when the single oyster is harvested the pair will spread production throughout the year to keep supplies up.
The process will begin in the company's shop on Old House Point Road, where Shockley and other employees will set the spat on microculch which is essentially ground up oyster shell in a temperature controlled downwelling tank. The spat will use the microculch to "strike on" and then begin forming its own shell, Shockley said.
The oysters will then be transported to the floating upwellers that lie off a nearby dock, where they will sit until they grow to inch, Shockley said. Once they reach that size, the oysters will be placed in the first set of cages, -inch cages, and taken out to the Tar Bay waters. The cages will then be pulled every two weeks so the oysters can be run through the tumbling equipment, which will size, shape and wash them, Shockley said.
Once they reach one inch, the oysters will be moved to the second set of cages, one-inch cages, which will be pulled every three to four weeks to run the oysters through the tumbling equipment, Shockley said. As the oysters grow, they will be separated to provide more room for that growth.
This process will continue until the oysters reach their size goal of three inches, Shockley said, at which time they will be ready to sell.
"They will taste like regular oysters, but better," Shockley said. "They'll be plumper and fatter."
The quickness of the process will make the oysters less susceptible to the diseases MSX and Dermo, which have devastated natural oysters populations in years past, Shockley said. Those diseases usually take about three years to kill an oyster, he said.
The company is using this production method, Shockley said, because it is ideal for its target market the half-shell market. If the company were to target the meat and shucking market, they would have the larvae strike on regular oyster shells and form clusters of eight to 10 oysters that would then be placed on the water's bottom, Shockley said.
While 1 million oysters in the first year may seem like a lofty goal, the company has much higher aspirations than that.
"It's going to be a huge operation in five years," Shockley said. "There's no reason it shouldn't be. The markets are there and there are unlimited amounts of larvae. We'll be growing more and more each year."
Given Virginia's thriving oyster aquaculture industry, Shockley is hoping that Maryland will soon catch up a goal that is feasible, he said, if the talents of the local watermen are tapped.
"It has the potential to revitalize our oyster industry in the state of Maryland," Shockley said.
For him, the stability of aquaculture is appealing, as his company is creating a sustainable product through an operation that is not subject to the same regulations as public fisheries.
"It's a private endeavor," Shockley said. "We're not taking from the natural brood stocks; we're creating a renewable resource."
And the end product proves valuable to both Maryland's seafood-producing waters and seafood-loving residents.
"We're creating artificial reefs, introducing millions of oysters into the Bay to filter the water and producing a top-end product," Shockley said. "What more could you want?"
In addition to selling oysters, Shockley and Fitzhugh also will be selling oyster growing equipment, including cages, upwellers and downwellers.