By Barbara Pash
The state hopes that an emphasis on restructuring the aquaculture industry will increase its worth from the current value of $2 million to at least $10 million in four years.
Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration has launched several initiatives to improve the industry. In 2009, he announced a plan to rebuild and restore the state’s oyster population through aquaculture leasing opportunities. Then came the restructuring of the state’s lease laws for commercial fisheries, and the 2011 Senate Bill 847 consolidating the permitting process under a new aquaculture division in the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“We’re starting to see a lot of activity in shellfish aquaculture – for example, in the number of permits being applied for,” said Don Webster, an aquaculture expert with the University of Maryland Extension.
Aside from shellfish, the state’s aquaculture industry consists of a shrimp farm in Dorchester County, a tilapia farm also in Dorchester County, ornamental fish growers in Frederick County, and aquatic plant producers scattered throughout the state.
“We’re small but diverse,” said Karl Roscher, who runs the new DNR division.
Pushing since 2005
In 2005, a General Assembly task force chaired by Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat, studied the industry’s economic impact. In a statement, Klausmeier made the point that the consolidation of aquaculture activities under the DNR, combined with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of the new, streamlined permitting process, will make it easier for entrepreneurs to enter the industry. Previously, the corps had its own permitting process for certain projects in addition to the state’s process.
Del. Anthony O’Donnell, a Republican from Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties and a member of the task force, points to the neighboring state of Virginia, where the aquaculture industry thrives.
“The feeling is there could be a thriving industry [here as well]. Maryland has all the ingredients,” said O’Donnell, a long-time advocate for the industry. He said he felt that “bureaucratic intransigence” and a “patchwork quilt of traditions” of competing state departments had hampered progress.
Webster agreed. “There were a lot of archaic laws that needed to be changed,” he said. “A lot of agencies were involved in permitting and they didn’t necessarily talk to each other. Applications sat on desks for a long time.”
Roscher, whose official title is assistant director of fisheries services, has a staff of four to run the new division.
“It’s basically a one-stop shop now,” he said, with the time frame for permitting reduced from six months and longer to 120 days.
Thanks to these moves, last year alone 80 applications were submitted for commercial shellfish leasing, in addition to 400 existing leaseholders, according to Roscher.
Although the efforts apply to all forms of aquaculture, the focus in Maryland has been on shellfish, particularly oysters and clams, because “that’s most profitable now,” said Webster. However, soft crab production is also still profitable.
Webster pointed to a University of Maryland study that another 2 ½ to 3 million bushels of oysters could be put on the market today without depressing the price.
“Interestingly, in the 1970s, 2½ to 3 million bushels is what Maryland harvested,” he said. The 2010 public harvest was 120,000 bushels.
New ideas for aquaculture
There have been a few unsuccessful experiments in Maryland with open ponds for rockfish and floating pens in the Chesapeake Bay for striped bass. Webster said they were not profitable. Compared to other states, he explained, “land costs are high and construction is high.” Other factors, he added, are Maryland winters, which are too cold for fin fish, and the fierce foreign competition.
Nonetheless, since industry restructuring, Maryland received two federal grants in 2011. One was for $2.2 million — of which $1.5 million was from the federal blue crab fisheries disaster relief, and the rest from state capital funds. The second grant was $1 million from the federal agriculture department for aquatic habitats in the Bay.
Roscher is pondering a marketing strategy if more grant money comes. “We’re kicking around marketing to get the message out. The question is, do you want major out-of-state corporations coming in, or [do you] give opportunities to smaller in-state people?”
Webster is already seeing a spin-off effect. He points to a company in Dorchester County that raises oysters in bottom cages and has now begun manufacturing these cages for other companies. Another Dorchester County oyster company is building boat slips for watermen to create working waterfronts.
“It’s going to be interesting to see where Maryland goes with this in the next five to 10 years,” he said.