Choptank Communications’ Partner Brent Burkhardt explored how aquaculture is transforming Maryland’s oyster industry. The article showcases how Dorchester County – a traditional oystering region – has become a hub of oyster farming in Maryland.

Ask the nation’s seafood lovers about where the best tasting oysters are found, and choices from Long Island, New England, Prince Edward Island and the Pacific Northwest frequently come to mind. If Dorchester County’s local oyster farmers have their way, bivalves from the waters of the Choptank and Hooper’s Island will soon join that list.

Dorchester is the hub of Maryland oyster farming. The county outpaces all others with a total of 64 shellfish aquaculture leases out of 322 statewide, according to Karl Roscher, Aquaculture Division Director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Included are 22 leases issued since 2010 for farms coming into production. They represent a quarter of new leases in Maryland. An additional 12 Dorchester leases are under review.

Dorchester oyster farmers produced approximately 1.025 million oysters in 2012, according to reports maintained by DNR. Roscher expects that number to at least double in 2013 with significant increases to follow as new operations come on line.

The leases vary from larger commercial operations looking to sell premium oysters found on the tables of top restaurants to farmers who sell by the bushel and those raising oysters for canning, stews and shell stock.

According to Stephen Vilnit, DNR fisheries marketing director, several factors are contributing to the growth in Dorchester oyster farming: the base of watermen looking to continue the tradition of oystering, optimal water quality — the region’s brackish balance of fresh and salt — and access to shipping and major markets.

Pioneering the efforts is the Choptank Oyster Company (formerly Marinetics) started by Bob Maze and Laurie Landau at Castle Haven. Known for its prized Choptank Sweets, the company has sold oysters for about eight years. Choptank’s early efforts helped to establish the state’s aquaculture program.

“We were selling oysters before oyster farming really existed in Maryland,” says general Kevin McClarren, a Cambridge resident who came to Choptank in 1999 after growing fish in New England. “I think we’ve done more for Maryland aquaculture than anybody.”

Purchasing spat from the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory. Choptank grows its oysters on floats along the shores of LeCompte Bay. Throughout their development, the oysters are pulled from their floats, washed and tumbled to clean the shells of fowling organisms and create the desired deep cup shape.

Mature Choptank Sweets can be found in top restaurants from New York City to North Carolina and as far west as Cleveland. Whole Foods shoppers can also purchase them at seafood counters.

Choptank sales totals will be just under a million in 2013. The company employs four full-time with summer part-time help.

Choptank also sells oyster floats and spat to individuals looking to grow oysters at their dock and filter nearby waters, but McClarren keeps his eye on the commercial product.

“We really focus our efforts on being a great food producer,” he said, “just grinding out the best oysters available.”

Hooper’s Island Oyster Aquaculture Company, branded Chesapeake Gold, was started in 2010 by local waterman Johnny Shockley and business partner Ricky Fitzhugh, a former wholesale fish buyer who lives in Cambridge.

The company, which employs 12 full-time, produced its first 200,000 oysters this year and expects to exceed 1.5 million in 2014, while adding six full-time employees. It’s already selling to restaurants throughout the mid-Atlantic.

“We went from 0 to 100 restaurants in one year,” says Shockley, “and we’re going to blow that out of the water in the coming year.”

In addition, they have begun to sell direct to consumers through www.ILoveBlueSea.com

Chesapeake Gold grows triploid oysters, which don’t reproduce because they have three sets of chromosomes. Shockley says, they grow fatter and faster because they don’t get run down as result of the summer spawning process and are available during all seasons.

The oysters are grown in cages on the bottom of the Chesapeake and are tumbled and cleaned throughout maturation. They are salted to desired levels at a shore facility to make up for the Bay’s inconsistent salinity.

With the University of Maryland College Park, the company has already developed the industry’s first wet storage system that uses an ultraviolet light to kill bacteria, and the two are working on designing a sorting system. Shockley also hopes to launch aquaculture’s first triploid oyster lavre hatchery.

“We’re developing an entire industry here as well as new equipment to support that industry,” said Shockley. People from as far as Australia have traveled to Dorchester to see the innovations.

Chesapeake Gold is also a tourism attraction. “We’re already working with the Hyatt to bring tours to Hooper’s,” he said. “We want to offer educational tours just like a winery.”

New to the industry is Barren Island Oysters, owned by Easton native Timothy Devine. Since high school, he dreamed of creating a business that benefited the Chesapeake, which led him to sustainable oyster farming.

Searching throughout the Bay, he settled on Hooper’s Island where his staff of five grows oysters off Barren Island. A loan from the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corporation (MARBIDCO) helped him get started.

Devine also grows triploids which he brought to the tables of several exclusive restaurants in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore for the first time this summer and drew rave reviews.

He likes that oysters can be sustainably raised while providing relief to the wild oyster population. Unlike farm-raised shrimp and salmon that require protein-based feed, oysters are vegetarian, he says, and require less energy and resources because they only eat algae.

A boat ride and words of encouragement from an enthusiastic Johnny Shockley, led Ted Cooney to launch Madhouse Oysters.

A successful health care finance business owner, Cooney originally wanted to grow oysters off his upper Choptank home in Talbot County. After realizing the waters were susceptible to fresh water rains, he also came to Hooper’s Island.

With about 50 cages currently in the Bay, he hopes to harvest about 100,000 market-sized oysters in 2014 with a goal of one to two million in the next three to four years. For now, it’s a part-time operation, but Cooney wants to go full-time next year working with local waterman Capt. Scott Robinson, Sr. and Scott, Jr.

For all of Dorchester’s aquaculture entrepreneurs, there’s something bigger at stake than just turning a profit. It’s about bringing new life to the oyster industry. As Shockley says, “if this generation doesn’t do something, it’s gone.”