The challenges and hardships of earning a living on the water is a reality that stretches back generations for Kent County watermen in general, and particularly those from the Rock Hall area, where the Bay and its tributaries have been a traditional lifeblood for the small, working town.
No part of the industry has endured as many recent trials as the harvesting of oysters, but there is reason for optimism as the new season begins, and as the annual “return” of the oyster is celebrated this Saturday, Oct. 9, at Rock Hall FallFest.
The annual free street festival, celebrated from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Main Street, features day-long music, crafts, and a Kids Kourt, but the bivalve is king as both wild-harvested and farm-raised oysters share the stage just as their harvesters share the waters.
Oystering on wild beds opened Oct. 1 and Chris Lingerman, co-owner of Chester River Seafood, which buys from local commercial oystermen, is anticipating a good season.
“I think there’s a good chance this will be a much better season, just because of how bad last season was with COVID,” Lingerman said. “There weren’t any restaurants open and we weren’t able to wholesale like we did in the past. Without restaurants, the product demand went down, the prices went down, and nobody made any money on oysters last winter.”
The dockside price per bushel went from approximately $40 in the 2019-20 season to $30 in the 2020-21 season, making it difficult for commercial oystermen to break even after fuel, labor, licensing, and equipment expenses.
Early indications are that oysters will be plentiful and in demand this season. Restaurants are open, boosting the demand, and the wild beds are replenished to a certain extent.
“The beds should be more full because fewer oysters were taken from them last season,” Lingerman said.
Additionally, looking to a brighter future, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources issued a report earlier this year that showed an encouraging amount of healthy oyster spat being set in areas where oyster restoration has been made a priority.
The challenges are still very real, however. Compared to the oyster population in the Bay and tributaries that was present in the late 19th century, only about 1 percent of that number is present today.
The effect of that decline is not just on the oystering economy, but on the overall health of the waters. An adult oyster is a filtration device that neutralizes pollutants, especially nitrogen and sediment, from 50 gallons of water every day. At one time, there were enough oysters to filter the entire Bay every week. At current population levels, it would take a year.
The state has, over the years, instituted various programs to help restore the oyster population, particularly after the disastrous 2006 crisis during which the MSX and Dermo diseases decimated the population. Vast stretches of the Bay and tributaries were closed to commercial oystering. In 2009, the sanctuary network was increased from 9 percent to 25 percent of existing oyster bar habitat, and the state’s commitment to increasing aquaculture (farmed) harvesting methods was increased.
The state’s efforts have been well-intentioned in terms of the oyster’s future in the Bay, but were often as odds with the present livelihood of the commercial oystermen. Debating the science, the politics, and the economics of the issues is a tail-chasing game with no beginning and no end.
What is certain, however, as will be on display at this Saturday’s Rock Hall FallFest is that commercial and aquaculture oystermen can bring their harvest to market side-by-side, and it all goes down very nicely.
Chester River Seafood will source approximately 6,000 oysters from commercial harvesters to be shucked on-site near Main and Sharp Streets, and fried oyster platters will be available as well. A little bit farther down Main Street, closer to Rt. 20, Scott Budden, who operates Orchard Point Oyster Company, a local farm-raised operation, will be serving grilled and raw oysters.
“We’ve sold out every year we’ve done it. It’s good to be there and show up for the locals who have supported us. If people are at FallFest, they’re going to eat oysters,” Budden said. “You have to shuck all day long like crazy, and you’re hurting the next day, but that’s a cool thing.”
Budden’s nursery is located in the Chester River near Eastern Neck Island, where the oysters grow for approximately 18 months before finishing their development for a month or two at another nursery in Eastern Bay. His first crop went to market in 2016.
Currently, the Chester River nursery, just off the island’s Boxes Point, has approximately 700 floating cages, each containing six bags of oysters weighing 80 pounds each. Depending on the size of the oysters, there are between 400-1,000 oysters per bag. During an ordinary work week, the bags must be pulled out, the oysters sorted by size and shape, tumbled and washed, and then replaced in the floats. It is arduous, day-long work.
“Our business is healthy in terms of demand and there’s a lot of seed (spat) available, which is good,” Budden said. “Our biggest challenge is finding help. The manual labor we have to do every day is like crop farming at the turn of the 20th century. There’s no way around it at the moment. We have to find young people willing to do it.”
The commercial oystermen and the aquaculture oystermen have divergent means of bringing the oyster to market, but the health of the entire industry is vital to both.
“What is good for one is good for the other,” said Ron Fithian, a Kent County Commissioner, and the county’s representative on the DNR’s Oyster Advisory Commission. “I can assure you that you would find very few commercial oystermen who have a problem with aquaculture. We just don’t want to see the wild industry put out of business. I think I speak for the vast majority of people in the seafood industry that there is plenty of room for everybody as long as we do it right.”
Doing it right is a question of perspective and politics, and managing harvest rates versus restoration goals is a debate that might be nearer the start than the finish. In any case, it won’t be settled by Saturday. That day is reserved for enjoying the oyster rather than debating it.
“This is always a great event,” Lingerman said. “I hope people come out and support our commercial oystermen. That’s our focus.”
Admission and parking are free at Rock Hall FallFest, which is a non-profit event benefitting local civic programs supported by Main Street Rock Hall. In addition to oysters, there will be a variety of food vendors on site, along with artisan craft vendor booths, the popular Kids Kourt, and two stages hosting five musical acts, highlighted by the annual appearance of the Catonsville High School Steel Band. Festivities will take place rain or shine, and there are plenty of tents to deal with either.
After a hard year away, both FallFest and the oyster are back for 2021. That is definitely a reason to come out and celebrate.
By Bob Ford