Choptank Oyster Company

by Bonnie North

With my scribbled directions in hand I bounced down the long, flat country road about five miles west of Cambridge, passing through sandy fields of corn and deep stands of eastern shore pines. The road led to a narrow beach of almost white sand and three young guys standing under a tent in mucky boots and heavy gloves sorting oysters. Pulling up in his truck to meet me is Kevin McClarren, manager of the Choptank Oyster Company, a shellfish farming operation that raises what they call Choptank Sweets.

Outspoken and enthusiastic Kevin, who has a degree in marine science, joined owners Robert Maze and Laurie Landeau at Marinetics Inc. in 1999. Maze and Landeau, a husband and wife team, studied parasites and veterinary medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. At Choptank they raise oysters in mesh bags that hang a few feet under floating rafts near the surface a technique that has been around for centuries, but was never attempted before in the Chesapeake.

Unlike fish farming, shellfish farming requires nothing in the way of potentially harmful inputs. Kevin explains: "There's been a lot of backlash against aquaculture from environmentalists.  And a lot of it is rightly so. Some of the penned culture, especially in third world countries, really does do environmental harm. Shellfish farming is entirely different".

In fact, as Kevin and many others  see it, shellfish aquaculture is indisputably good for the health of the Chesapeake Bay. At Choptank they have several million oysters sitting in the river at any one time. Oysters consume algae, acting as a natural filter to remove the large volumes of excess nutrients that still plague the Bay. Most of these oysters will spawn at least once before harvest, releasing billions of oyster larvae into the water column to be distributed throughout the Bay by tidal currents. They only grow the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), the species of oyster native to the Chesapeake Bay, so there is utterly no risk that their operation can infest the waters with an invasive, non-native species.

Raising them closer to the surface also cuts the time it takes for oysters to reach market size so they stand much less chance of becoming infested with disease and parasites before being harvested.  Disease is a non-issue for us.  "We just don't have it here", says Kevin. Indeed, oysters raised using aquaculture techniques do have a stronger resistance to parasites, according to research at the University of Massachusetts Aquaculture Center.

We prefer to grow on the surface. I wouldn't grow oysters on the bottom of the Bay. There's little oxygen, little food for them. It's real muddy. It may be a little easier in terms of potential wind damage, ice damage and stuff but it doesn't produce as nice an oyster. Our oysters are overweight. They are just literally flopping out of the shells!" Kevin insists. "That's because they eat so much.  They're up near the surface where all the algae is."

Today the sorters are selecting oysters that are ready for harvest and also looking for especially fine ones to take to their hatchery lab for captured spawning.

Kevin talks me through the entire life cycle of the operation: "We raise them in the hatchery for about 2, 3, 4 weeks in a tank with a 300 micro screen on the bottom. When we bring them out they're about a third of a millimeter in size."

From the hatchery they go to enclosed bins in the pier shed where they are kept protected until they're large enough to move to the floats. The spawning operation creates more oyster spat than Marinetics can use so they also sell a portion to other oyster farms in the region and to oyster restoration projects. "We put as many, if not more, oysters into the water  than we take out", Kevin is proud to proclaim.

The oysters  grow in the floats, reaching harvest time in about three years from the spawn. "Some oysters will grow faster than others" Kevin says, "So in the sorting process we're constantly taking some out and putting some back.  We keep the floats color coded by year, tagging them each time they've been sorted."

Marinetics operates the only privately funded oyster hatchery in the state of Maryland. They maintain complete control over each step in the production process from spawning to harvesting, before shipping to local distributors who sell them to restaurants and markets in the greater Baltimore, Washington DC and Virginia areas.

Ask for them by their name "Choptank Sweets," and you'll know you're eating an oyster that's local, healthy, delicious and good for the Bay!


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