By Tom Zolper
Some of the farm hands are working in bathing suits. This
isn’t odd. It’s an oyster farm in July. Periodically, the workers
at Hollywood Oyster Company dunk themselves in the dark
waters of Hogs Head Creek. They pull themselves quickly
back onto a pier, dripping wet, then go back to work.
Around the Chesapeake Bay, oysters historically were
associated with winter. Oysters spawned in the summer
and quickly went bad out of the water, so harvest seasons
were established in the cold months. Oystermen bundled
up in oilskins and sweatshirts, and we slurped their harvests
But now you’ll find oysters on restaurant menus throughout
the year. That’s largely because more oysters are raised on
farms year-round and shipped refrigerated to market.
Unlike some fish farms, well-run oyster farms provide
significant ecological benefits. Hollywood Oyster Company in
Southern Maryland has hundreds of growing cages just under
the surface of the water with a million oysters filtering and
sequestering excess nutrients and providing structure that
attracts marine life.
Hollywood owner Tal Petty says before he started the farm,
the sandy bottom of Hogs Head Creek was a desert with
little marine life. Now crabs, eels, and sea squirts congregate
around the oysters. The underwater horn of plenty draws
larger species, too. Crabbers set up their trotlines at the
boundary of Hollywood each morning.
“I like to believe they are here because we are here,” says
James Tweed, one of the Hollywood employees. “We are
feeding a lot of crabs.”
Hundreds of oyster farms now operate around the
Chesapeake, and that’s good for the Bay, as well as for oyster
lovers. That’s why the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance supports
the continued growth of the industry, which has grown an
average 15 percent annually in recent years. As part of its
efforts to add 10 billion oysters to the Bay by 2025, CBF is a
founding member of the alliance, which now includes over 40
organizations and businesses, about a quarter of them oyster
growers. To learn more, visit chesapeakeoysteralliance.org.
In Virginia, the value of oysters produced through farming
now exceeds those harvested off natural reefs. Maryland has
lagged behind Virginia, but a change in law in 2009 prompted
a surge in farming in Maryland. Production has increased on
average 17 percent a year in the past four years in Maryland,
with about 74,000 bushels of farmed oysters harvested last
year on 6,882 leased underwater acres. Three new private
oyster hatcheries also have come online, or soon will,
allowing further expansion of the industry.
Oyster farming provides hundreds of jobs and economic
development to rural areas hit hard by declines in the
traditional seafood industry. Hollywood Oyster Company
employs 15 people, some working in the growing area, others
in a small processing plant and office.
Tal Petty, owner of Hollywood Oyster Company, is one of the
many oyster farming operators in Maryland.