Photo: Tal Petty/Hollywood Oyster Company

Study: Oyster Farm Industry Thriving (until COVID-19)

A new Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) economic report finds oyster aquaculture in Maryland has grown steadily every one of the last eight years–but business closures due to coronavirus may bring the growth trend to a halt.

The strong numbers show the state’s oyster farming industry has grown by about 24 percent per year since 2012. And oyster aquaculture operations contribute about $9 million per year to Maryland’s economy.

Oyster aquaculture accelerated in Maryland after legislation passed in the 2010 General Assembly making it easier to farm the bivalves in Maryland waters.

“While the oyster aquaculture industry is still in its early stages, the industry has demonstrated it’s an important part of Maryland’s economy,” said Allison Colden, CBF Maryland Fisheries Scientist.

The economic impact report was commissioned by CBF and conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech and Engle-Stone Aquatic$. In 2012, aquaculture accounted for less than one percent of the bushels harvested in the public fishery. In 2018, the number was 42 percent. CBF says if growth continues at that rate, oyster farmers will actually produce more bushels of oysters than the public fishery sometime in the next 10 years.

The problem is that since the COVID-19 virus arrived, many restaurants have closed. According to CBF, nearly 70 percent of seafood in the U.S. is served in restaurants, so the previous demand just isn’t there for oysters.

Maryland farmers like Scott Budden of Orchard Point Oyster Co. in Stevensville report that restaurant sales “basically went to zero in a matter of mere days.”

Operations like Orchard Point and the nonprofit Fisherman’s Daughter Oysters (at Phillips Wharf Environmental Center in Tilghman) are turning to local pick-up and shipping oysters directly to consumers. CBF has compiled a list of some oyster farms you can have delivered at home at https://www.cbf.org/blogs/save-the-bay/2020/03/enjoying-the-bays-bounty-from-home.html

It’s too soon to see the full impact of coronavirus on oyster farms, but Budden believes it’s “This situation could be a major impediment to scaling, perhaps just as severe as 2018’s historic rains were on the industry.”

-Meg Walburn Viviano