African Americans have long been a part of the seafood industry, especially on the Chesapeake Bay. As far back as the earliest years of settlement in America, people of color worked on the water, manufactured tools for the watermen, and processed and packed the catch. In doing so, they contributed to the evolution and culture of the industry, an industry that continues to thrive, thanks to the increasing global demand for seafood. Yet despite that contribution, both the academic and management levels have remained overwhelmingly white and male-dominated. Imani Black wants to change that.
Black is an African American oyster farmer and scientist in the burgeoning aquaculture industry. An Eastern Shore native, she attended Queen Anne’s County High School and then graduated as a Marine Biologist from Old Dominion University in Norfolk in 2016. As a senior in college, she found her passion for oyster restoration while interning for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) Oyster Restoration Team, which led to the Oyster Aquaculture Training Program (OAT). By 2018 she was at the Hooper Island Oyster Company in Cambridge as the assistant hatchery manager, a position she held until May of 2020. It was during this time that she became aware she had a mission to fulfill.
“I realized that in my space, I’ve never worked with another woman of color nor seen another person of color in management,” said Black. Turning to other farmers and educators, she started asking the question she couldn’t answer: “When was the last time we saw a person of color in a leadership role in aquaculture? And nobody could tell me.”
That silence was disturbing, and so was the realization that she was a double minority. “It’s been said to me, and it also shows you how drastic this problem is,” said Black, “that I am the only woman of color involved in aquaculture from Maryland to Texas. Just the fact that this could be a thing is very alarming to me.”
This awareness hit Black hard and became the catalyst for her creating the nonprofit Minorities in Aquaculture (MIA). “Aquaculture is becoming the focal point of our sustainable seafood resource, not just in the United States but also globally. I’ve had a very successful career in aquaculture. So I wanted to create a network of women of color that could come together, learn about aquaculture, and also be provided with career development skills and opportunities.”
Black’s success in aquaculture can be attributed to her growing up on the Eastern Shore and her connection to a long line of Bay Watermen, dating back over 200 years. It is a background that she has taken time to learn about and which is a backdrop to her organization. “If you look at the history of women of color or just minorities in general,” said Black, “men usually are at the forefront of what is recognized and what is documented as far as minorities’ contribution. So I wanted to pay homage not only to the traditional marine occupation of Waterman but also to recognize the legacy of women of color that have had a huge part in the evolution of our commercial fishing on the Chesapeake.”
The response to MIA has been greater than she envisioned. “It’s been amazing, with people both in and out of aquaculture,” she says. “When I was thinking about all of this, I was not aware that there is a whole movement of black marine scientists who lately have said, ‘we’ve had enough.’ Diversity and inclusion have been on the table, have been in our conversations, have been in your conversations as leaders for decades. And yet, still, marine science lacks people of color. And so, all at the same time, a few organizations have started a movement. To be recognized as being a part of that movement is amazing.” As is the international recognition they’ve received, something she hopes will translate into a global organization.
With MIA’s membership growing, so are the partnerships that have rallied around the organization. “We just hired our first communications intern from Howard University, and we’re trying to get in front of local high schools, historically black colleges, etc., just to give those minority women opportunities. I want people to know that when someone has a designation as an MIA member on the resume that they are coming in knowing everything they’re supposed to know and can just hit the ground running in whatever sector of aquaculture that they choose to do.”
If it isn’t yet obvious, Black is passionate both about the Bay and the oysters. Ask her why and she’ll tell you the importance of oysters to the ecosystem and the economy: How they were almost wiped out due to disease, overfishing, and habitat destruction. How oysters filter 50 gallons of water a day and how their viability can predict the health of the environment. This is why Black believes the introduction of aquaculture to the Chesapeake Bay has helped restore the numbers of oysters and why she is so interested in her contribution as an oyster farmer to the health of the Bay. One of the many roles available in the aquaculture industry that she hopes to model for other minority women.
Besides promoting MIA, Black is currently working on her Master’s thesis. She’s also been exploring training for her captain’s license, but that has become a whole other opportunity she didn’t expect when she found her notoriety attracted organizations willing to pay for her lessons and sponsor her to get seat time. “I was super grateful for that,” she said. “Honestly, I was shocked that that was even happening. However, in this new mindset that I am in, having started MIA, I think about things now, not just for myself, but how it will affect the women who are part of this organization. And so I boldly had a moment where I said, let’s put your money where your mouth is. I know that you want to pay for my captain’s license, but I want to start a program so that other people can get their captain’s licenses and that you can support them while they do that. Because it’s not about me being the youngest woman of color on the water, but if I get my captain’s license five years from now, that’s fine too. It’s just another credential, another certification, another skill to have. But you know, that skill is also beneficial, so I saw the opportunity within that to make it have some longevity to go beyond just me.”
Meanwhile, either as a captain or crew, Black says she’s meant to be on a boat every day, getting drenched and muddy. She loves the hard physical labor. Before the interview ended, we had to know how she personally feels about oysters as a food group?
“I cap it at six raw oysters,” she told us. ‘I’m in a place where I just want to taste the oysters enough to figure out their flavor profile, to get the notes. After that, I’m okay; I don’t need to eat two dozen oysters. I get the point after six.”
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.