Chesapeake Oysters, Livelihoods, and Anthropology

A project blog by Adriane Michaelis


As a grad student, one of the activities I’m involved in is organizing a monthly brown bag lunch series called “E-Lunches“.  E-Lunches are informal presentations and discussions geared toward ecological and environmental themes, within and outside of anthropology.  Each month a different presenter or set of presenters are featured, and this week (September 13th) I’ll be sharing some of the data collected over the past year.  This semester, E-Lunch sessions will take place on Wednesdays from 11 to noon in 1102 Woods Hall.

September E-Lunch Flyer

The September E-Lunch will feature presentations by fellow grad student Kevin McDonald and myself.

Confessions of an Ecologist Turned Anthropologist: Differences in Data Collection

I am three years into my transition from working as a coastal ecologist to earning a doctorate in anthropology because I want to focus on the human side of coastal resource management. I want to learn and help explain how science-based fisheries management policies impact fishermen and others whose livelihoods depend on fisheries.

As I navigate this transition in disciplines, one of the major differences I’ve noticed relates to data collection. As an ecologist, I was accustomed to recording readily quantifiable metrics – total number of oysters, length, weight, etc. In anthropology, however, the metrics aren’t always so cut and dried.


Blue crabs

These crabs have been measured to make sure they’re big enough to be legal catch, but my data doesn’t involve this kind of measurement. Instead, what was important to my work was my conversation with the waterman working the trotline that these crabs were caught on.

In my current project, “Understanding the Decision to Participate in Oyster Aquaculture in Maryland,” I’m collecting qualitative and quantitative data about why individuals have chosen to get involved in oyster aquaculture or why they have chosen not to. Ultimately, I will be quantitatively analyzing both types of data. This means that after all of my data are collected, I need to be able to tabulate it in some way, such as by saying “35 out of 50 watermen interviewed stopped crabbing in the summer to take part in oyster aquaculture.”

This type of analysis can be tricky if I don’t pose questions in a systematic way that provides comparable results. For example, to draw conclusions about whether many interviewees share a certain view, I need to make sure that I asked all of them the question that elicited that response. When drafting my interview questions, I have to think carefully about what sort of data I hope to analyze at the end of the study and what is the most appropriate way to obtain it.

At the same time, one characteristic of anthropology is the rich detail that its methods can provide. There’s a balance to be achieved – I need data that can be compared among participants, but I also want to be sure that I’m not constraining a range of informative answers through restrictive interview questions. To meet this aim, my project includes semi-structured interviews, during which I ask a pre-determined set of questions but allow freedom for discussion. This provides a setting for new themes or topics to emerge, particularly topics that I may not have thought of on my own.

A major aspect of data collection in my project that differs from my previous ecological studies is the importance of trust and rapport. For ecological data, I didn’t need to build a personal relationship with the oysters I measured! For anthropological data, however, I’m asking people to let me into their lives and to partake in sometimes lengthy conversations. This requires a certain degree of familiarity and the willingness of my interviewees to let me tag along.

Oyster farmer Scott Budden pulling oyster cages

Often, my field days involve meeting watermen and growers early in the morning and joining them for their regular workday. Here, Scott Budden of Orchard Point Oyster Company pulls in oyster cages.

Thus far, I’ve been fortunate to have met so many welcoming watermen and oyster growers.  I’ve had many informative conversations and interviews that range from 25 minutes to 6 hours.  Studying humans also differs from studying oysters because there’s always the possibility that interviewees are not being forthright with their answers or are maybe just telling me what they think I want to hear. Based on the discussions that have surrounded many of my interviews so far, I don’t believe that to be the case with this project.

There are times during my current project when I’m out on the water, enjoying a beautiful day, sorting oysters, and having great conversations, and I still take a minute to think, “This is really my research?”  But when I get back to my computer to type up my field notes and transcribe my interviews, I am very quickly reminded of all the data that my day spent on the water provides.


This post was originally written for and shared on the Maryland Sea Grant Fellowship Experiences Blog.

Confessions of an Ecologist Turned Anthropologist: Why Switch Fields?

Nearly three years ago I entered the Ph.D. program in the University of Maryland’s Department of Anthropology. This marked a transition point for me. Of course, there was the commitment to at least another five years of life as a graduate student. But for me, the more impactful change was my move into social science. After earning my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the biological sciences, I put those degrees into practice as a field ecologist. For my doctoral studies, however, I wanted to shift gears and focus on the human side of coastal resource management

I’m not alone in such changes of field. I regularly run into people who have made similar choices.  Aquatic biologist turned geographer, physicist turned anthropologist, pre-med student turned sociologist, etc. Everyone has his or her own reasons.

Before returning to school for my Ph.D., I was involved in oyster restoration monitoring as part of the Paynter Lab at the University of Maryland, College Park. This included dive surveys to sample oysters and evaluate restoration sites. Credit: Don Meritt

For me, I realized that I was more interested in including local voices in resource management than providing the data that help inform management decisions. Actually, scratch that: I do want to provide data to inform management but a different kind of data than what I collected previously. My data no longer involve measuring oysters or seeing how far I can stick my arm into the soft bottom of the Chesapeake Bay. Instead, I will help to explain to resource managers how policies impact the people who harvest and/or grow oysters, and I’ll collect data by talking with and listening to commercial fishermen (watermen) and oyster growers.

Sure, I still measure an oyster now and then, but the focus has shifted. My current research involves better understanding who is entering the industry of oyster aquaculture (also called oyster farming) in Maryland and why. This sort of understanding can help guide the development of Maryland oyster aquaculture as well as highlight aquaculture’s implications for the Maryland watermen.

Dredged oysters

As part of my current project, I join Maryland watermen and oyster growers on the water. Here, aquaculture oysters are being sorted on a culling table.

I am studying these questions as a Coastal Resilience and Sustainability Fellow funded by Maryland Sea Grant, which is supporting two years of fieldwork for my project, “Understanding the Decision to Participate in Oyster Aquaculture in Maryland.” Using an anthropological approach that combines participant observation and semi-structured interviews, I spend time with watermen and oyster growers, asking research questions about why they’ve chosen to participate in or avoid oyster aquaculture. I am gaining an in-depth understanding of what working in Maryland’s oyster industry entails. Over the past year, I have also pulled oyster cages with growers in Dorchester County, sorted oyster seed (young, tiny oysters) in St. Mary’s County, and trotlined for blue crabs in Talbot County, just to give a few examples of what field days are like.

The switch to anthropology has allowed me to continue to focus on a topic that’s important to me, sustainable fisheries, but from a different angle. By talking with watermen and oyster growers, my knowledge of Maryland oysters has expanded well beyond what it was just one year ago — and I thought I knew a lot about oysters then! Over the next year, I’ll continue my interviews and will no doubt learn even more. Check back again for additional blog posts related to my project and my own integration of ecology and anthropology.


This post was originally written for and shared on the Maryland Sea Grant Fellowship Experiences Blog.

The Oyster Social Network

When you hear the phrase “social network” you might automatically think of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.  While, yes, these are all forms of social networks, social networks include much more than social media.  Social networks are relationships among people (or other animals, or groups, …).  Your family represents a social network.  The parents of your kids’ friends might be another social network.  The people you call on when you need help moving might be another one.


The platforms shown here may be what first comes to mind when you think of social networks, but social networks are much more than that. (Image source:


There are an endless number of social networks that can be described, but all boil down to different relationship ties or connections between actors (often, actors = people).  Social network analysis offers a way to describe and look for patterns within and between networks. In my current research project, I’m looking at two types of social networks that both relate to oysters:

  • Information Exchange Networks: I’m interested in who people talk to about oysters.  Who do they turn to for questions about oysters, and who comes to them with questions?  This could be about oyster growth and how good the catch is in the wild harvest, or different oyster aquaculture techniques, or anything else related to oysters.
  • Labor Exchange Networks: Since part of my project focuses on livelihood diversification (How many sources of income do households or individuals have? Is oyster aquaculture one of many income sources?), I’m also interested in labor exchange networks.  Who do people call on for help with work on the water?  Who asks them for help with work?  Do they compensate one another with cash, or is it traded labor?

With both types of networks, I’m currently using an actor-based approach to studying them.  That means I’m comparing the networks of individuals to look for patterns (rather than analyzing an entire network of all Maryland watermen, for example).  With this actor-based approach, I’m trying to identify patterns that may lead some to aquaculture and some away from it.  For example, I created the image below (as part of a short course on social network analysis taught by Lorien Jasny at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center), which depicts information exchange networks of some of the individuals I’ve interviewed thus far.

Here’s the output from the analytical program, R, which depicts oyster information networks of individuals I’ve interviewed thus far. In the network diagram, each circle represents an individual person and arrows represent outgoing ties. This means that the arrow is pointed at someone they seek information from. The circles, or nodes, are also colored according to a very general description of network roles based on occupation. Analysis of this network may lead me to question why the node in the top right is not connected to the larger network, or to look for patterns in network diversity and size among oyster growers and watermen.

One of the things I’m looking at is whether or not network diversity influences someone’s decision to take on oyster aquaculture.  Does diversity in the type of people (based on occupation) that an individual is connected to affect their tendency to take on aquaculture?  It’s too early to tell just yet, but this is something I hope to answer using social network analysis over the next year.

My project is just scraping the surface of the potential of social network analyses.  Social network analysis has some pretty cool applications.  For more info on social network analysis, here are a few options to check out:


Sunrise on the water – added benefits of early fieldwork

While I’ve taken a break from interviews lately because of other grad student obligations (and I’m writing this post from a locale a good deal south of the Chesapeake), I couldn’t help think about waking up for the field when I heard my alarm go off on Sunday after the Daylight Savings time change. My alarm said 6:00 am, but it felt like 5:00. Even so, it was still sleeping in compared to many of my field days during the past year. Working on the water starts early – so early that there were some days my alarm was set for 2:00 am. That’s one of those times where you wonder if it’s even worth going to sleep. The answer is yes, it’s always worth going to sleep.

It’s not unusual to leave the dock when the moon’s still providing the light.

Though some of the early mornings felt a bit rough, as soon as we were out on the water, I was wide awake. And as one of the added rewards of waking up early (aside from the company), there is the never-disappointing sunrise. I’ve seen a few while carrying out my research, and thought this post might be a good excuse to share them.  Disfrútala!

Sunrise on the Miles River.

Another sun breaking the horizon on the Nanticoke River.

Aquaculture America 2017

This week I had the opportunity to travel to San Antonio, Texas to attend and present at the annual Aquaculture America conference and exposition.  The international meeting and industry trade show attracts academic and non-academic scientists, aquaculturists, extension agents, and industry representatives, among many others.

Aquaculture America 2017 was held in San Antonio, TX. (Logo (c) World Aquaculture Society).

I presented within the session, “Aquaculture in a Changing Environment” and shared my preliminary results trying to understand participation in Maryland oyster aquaculture in the context of a changing policy environment and a changing biophysical environment.  It was a different experience presenting a social science project at this meeting (compared to previous talks I’ve given that feature oyster restoration), but overall, seemed well received…at least based on what people said to my face : )

Part of Aquaculture America meetings include the large trade show, which includes exhibitors representing the latest gear and technology in aquaculture.

All in all, it was a great meeting and opportunity to get feedback on my project as well as discuss it further with folks that may be facing similar questions or challenges.  I also was able to see and hear from a ton of people doing pretty amazing aquaculture work across the globe.  And, not to toot my own social science horn, but it was great to hear mentioned in several sessions, the present need to incorporate social science into a more interdisciplinary approach to aquaculture development.  I look forward to returning to Las Vegas next year for the next Aquaculture America meeting, to share my own progress and see what’s new in other areas.

While in San Antonio, I took advantage of the opportunity to see some of the sites, including the Alamo — I did not see a basement.


Since January 2016, I’ve been working with Don Webster, Regional Extension Specialist with University of Maryland Extension.  Officially, Don is my mentor for my Maryland Sea Grant Coastal Resilience and Sustainability Fellowship, but he has been an invaluable source of information and afforded opportunities for involvement in extension programs since well before the fellowship announcement.

Extension programs serve important roles, providing educational programs and knowledge transfer from land grant universities like the University of Maryland, College Park, to citizens.  They connect university research to applied settings, and aim to meet the needs of target groups.  The Oyster Aquaculture and Education Program at UM Extension “provides programs and materials to watermen and others to develop profitable shellfish aquaculture businesses.”  In 2016, I attended and participated in as many aquaculture extension programs as I was able.  Programs covered a range of topics, and the full 2016 list can be found here.  The 2017 list of programs will be updated soon.

In June 2016, one of the UM Extension programs offered was an Oyster Hatchery Short Course based at the Horn Point Lab Oyster Hatchery. It included field trips to Maryland oyster farms, including Madhouse Oysters, seen here. (Photo c/o: Dr. Don Meritt, HPL Oyster Hatchery.

My participation involved several aims.  First, I was able to see and hear the information provided in each program, learning some things for the first time, and seeing what sort of knowledge and materials are available to interested users.  Second, attending all of these programs was a great networking opportunity, affording chances to meet oyster growers (and those considering the venture) as well as watermen.  Lastly, these programs allowed me to hear the sorts of questions that participants have.  Their questions show areas where future programs may need to focus, and also inspire interview questions because, chances are, if one person asks it in an extension program, there are others not in the program who share the same question.

Another 2016 UM Extension offering included a tour of HPL’s demonstration oyster farm. Here, Shannon Hood leads a group to observe and handle different types of cage aquaculture gear. (Photo c/o: Dr. Don Meritt, HPL Oyster Hatchery).

At the conclusion of every program, attendees complete an evaluation survey, letting UM Extension know what they thought of the course/workshop/seminar.  Part of this survey also asks attendees to suggest other programs they would like to see. This lets organizers know what can be improved for next year, and how to develop future offerings.  This year (2017), I’ve had the opportunity to join in the program planning and development and look forward to again participating in as many extension offerings as possible.

Research Questions – The Basics

My research is full of questions, because it would be a pretty dull interview otherwise, but there are two main questions driving this project: 1) Who are Maryland’s oyster farmers? and 2) Why did they decide to take on oyster aquaculture?

Who are Maryland’s oyster farmers?  For this first question, I want to know who is actually participating in oyster aquaculture in Maryland.  What did they do before taking on aquaculture?  Were they watermen?  Were they non-oyster-related businessmen (or women)?  Is there a “typical” oyster grower?  Are they Maryland natives?  Do different characteristics tend one type of person toward water column aquaculture versus submerged land or bottom leases?  Through conversations about where Maryland’s current oyster growers are from (in a geographical and broader sense) and what other occupations they held or still hold, I’m hoping to describe the people that make up Maryland oyster aquaculture.

Why did they decide to take on aquaculture?  I also want to know why individuals have chosen to take on aquaculture.  Obviously, oyster aquaculture is a source of income and that is one piece of the motivation, but there are many other money-making opportunities out there.  Why oyster aquaculture and not some other venture?  Does the idea of working on the water have a strong allure?  Was oyster aquaculture an easy transition from working wild oysters?  Were some growers just ready for a change and saw Maryland aquaculture as an emerging market?  Does the role of oysters as providers of ecosystem services play a factor in deciding to take on aquaculture?  There are many factors that could lead one to aquaculture, and through interviews and conversations with growers I’m hoping to identify what sort of motivations exist in Maryland.

Some forms of aquaculture in Maryland involve the same sort of harvest techniques as the wild harvest. Here, Talbot Co. waterman Guy Spurry works a bottom lease with an oyster dredge.

On the other side of that second question, I am also interested in why not aquaculture?  I don’t plan on asking every Marylander why they aren’t starting their own oyster farm, but I am interested in why watermen have chosen not to take on aquaculture.  There are a number of watermen who have, many who I will hopefully have the chance to speak and work with.  There are also a number of Maryland watermen who have not gotten involved in oyster aquaculture.  As part of my project, I am also talking to commercial watermen not involved in aquaculture, to discuss some of the reasons keeping them away from it.

By the end of my project, I will hopefully be able to provide a rich description of Maryland’s oyster aquaculture industry and the motivations behind those taking part, as well as a better understanding of watermen’s involvement in oyster aquaculture.

This will take you how long?

One of the common questions that comes up from friends, family members, and those that I’m interviewing relates to how long until I: 1) finish this project, 2) finish this degree, and/or 3) get a real job (again).  First, word to the wise, don’t ask a PhD student that.  We know it seems never-ending. Believe me, we know.  But second, this project is more than just knocking out interviews as fast as I can.

An important feature (I hope) of my research, is that it will provide a level of detail in describing Maryland’s oyster-based livelihoods that cannot be attained by a simple survey or questionnaire.  Being able to do justice to the men and women that make a living off of Maryland oysters takes time.  Not only am I making sure that key questions are answered through my interviews (which will enable me to quantitatively analyze qualitative data…woohoo mixed methods!), but I’m also learning by doing.  In trying to better understand every aspect of Maryland’s oyster industry, I’m aiming to take part in every aspect.  That means days spent on the water pulling oyster cages, selling wild oysters to seafood buyers, shucking oysters at fall oyster festivals, and much more.  At the end when I’m ready to put the whole deal to paper, I want to be confident that I have a good understanding of oyster livelihoods, and that I can adequately detail that understanding.

By the time I complete my dissertation research, these little guys (here smaller than a dime) will have already gone to market. I think it’s fitting that my research encompasses the entire life of an aquaculture oyster.

Another critical piece of my work is the opportunity for feedback and discussion with my interviewees and others involved in Maryland’s oyster industry.  Dialogue is an important component of my research, and I’ll be seeking input throughout the project.  I aim to present research updates somewhat regularly, which will hopefully provide the opportunity to hear if my observations and interpretations seem to be on point as well as generate discussion of some of the patterns I’ve observed.  These conversations may lead me to rethink some of my data, and may extend work beyond my initial interviews.

Fieldwork, though enjoyable, is not my only obligation as a graduate student.  While trying to collect, enter, and interpret my interview data, I also need to keep up with a series of program benchmarks that will allow me to advance to candidacy (and eventually defend a dissertation).  In addition, I’m a teaching assistant in the Department of Anthropology and the advisor for the BSOS Sustainability Task Force.  So, while yes, it does seem like I will be working on my graduate research for some time, it shouldn’t be seen as a negative.  In the end, it’s precisely this timeline that will help create a better, more detailed, and more insightful dissertation.

East Coast Commercial Fishermen’s and Aquaculture Trade Exposition

Last weekend, I was able to attend the 43rd annual East Coast Commercial Fishermen’s and Aquaculture Trade Exposition, hosted by the Maryland Watermen’s Association, in Ocean City, MD.  As the only commercial fishing show in the Mid-Atlantic, it’s a large trade show that attracts commercial fishermen, charterboat captains, aquaculturists, scientists, educators, and members of the public from Maine to Florida.  Even though the weather wasn’t the best, the event drew a large crowd and many great exhibitors.

I was lucky enough to be able to present some of my work as part of the seminar program organized by University of Maryland Extension on Saturday.  Slide presentations from the seminar program are now available on the UM Extension website.  My slides have some of the preliminary observations from my data thus far, and I’d be happy to answer any questions related to them (email:

On Saturday I presented my initial observations on “Who becomes a shellfish grower” at the East Coast Commercial Fishermen’s and Aquaculture Trade Exposition in Ocean City, MD.

The seminar program was well attended, and provided a great venue to introduce my project to new faces as well as get feedback on my initial observations.  I now have some new questions to think about as I continue with my work, and hopefully gained a few new contacts for future interviews.

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