Oysters, Livelihoods, and Anthropology

A research blog by Adriane Michaelis

How Florida’s net ban shaped its shellfish aquaculture industry

In each community that I work in, I talk with folks about why they decided to start growing shellfish. There are some similarities, but usually everyone has their own story and I have not seen community-wide patterns, let alone state-wide. In Florida, however, when I talked with shellfish growers who used to be commercial fishermen in public or wild fisheries, nearly across the board they had the same answer to “Why did you decide to getting involved in shellfish aquaculture?” The net ban.

Florida’s “net ban” is an amendment that was passed in November 1994 – by a sizeable 72% margin. The amendment banned the use of entanglement nets (also called gill nets) in inshore waters and took effect in 1995. This left many net-fishermen unable to make a livelihood off the water. My own research builds off of the idea that fisheries-based livelihoods are more than merely a paycheck, and what happened after the net ban underscores that thought.

Hard clams

Hard clams (seen here) were one of the focal species of the aquaculture training programs developed in response to the net ban.

Many net-fishermen who were without work as a result of the net ban entered the then up-and-coming clam aquaculture industry in Florida, some taking advantage of joint-sponsored retraining programs, others diving straight in. Retraining programs took place in multiple counties, but had arguably the most notable impact in Levy and Dixie counties. (For a short NPR piece about Cedar Key’s clam industry in Levy County, click here.)  Programs trained fishermen in shellfish farming methods and gave them an aquaculture starting point from which to add the knowledge they already possessed through years of work on the water. Shellfish aquaculture provided a way to continue working on the water, albeit in a very different manner.

Cedar Key oyster harvesters

Even though Cedar Key, FL is known for its farmed clams, wild fisheries, including the oysters and harvesters seen here, also provide local livelihoods. Photo by A. Michaelis

This is not to say that Florida’s fishermen turned shellfish growers don’t miss net-fishing. If it were legal and they could make a living off it, I’m sure a number would love to return to inshore net-fishing, based on our discussions. That’s not the case, however, despite recent attempts to repeal the amendment. Instead, we see a shellfish aquaculture industry that has become one of the nation’s largest, with a high level of involvement from wild-catch commercial fishermen.


Additional notes:

In Florida, I worked exclusively along the Gulf Coast with fishermen and shellfish farmers in Dixie, Escambia, Franklin, Levy, Pinellas, and Wakulla Counties. My observations are based solely on conversations and research there.

For an overview of the net ban, check out this 2015 article written 20 years after its implementation.

Public and Private Fisheries

If you’ve been following my blog or research, you know that I am interested in the relationship between public and private fisheries, particularly as it relates to the fishermen and women involved. Not everyone is clear on the difference between a public and private fishery, however, and I thought it might make for a helpful blog discussion. In my interviews, we often discuss some of the distinctions and how the definitions of each may take on different meanings in different places. Though one might think the definition of each should be straightforward, that’s not always the case.

I’ll try to outline how I conceive of each type of fishery for my own research, and how they’re typically delineated. I’ll first note that I focus on commercial fisheries, not recreational. Those who fish commercially do so to sell their harvest; they make their income and thus living from the fishery. Recreational fishers do so for fun or sport. They cannot legally sell their catch, but may be able to personally consume it, depending on regulations.

Ocean City docks

Although the number of places you can find commercial boats at dock are fewer than they once were, this landing in Ocean City, MD regularly sees offshore commercial fishing boats that bring in their catch. Photo by: A. Michaelis.

Back to the question of public and private fisheries. Put very simply, a public fishery is a wild catch or wild harvest fishery. It might also be described as a “commons”. A commons refers to a tract of land, or in this case a population of an aquatic species, shared by an entire community – be it town, state, nation, or otherwise. You may be familiar with the Tragedy of the Commons, which is often used to suggest that common ownership or use of a resource ultimately leads to its destruction or misuse. People regularly frame public fisheries as such a tragedy, but there are numerous critiques and examples that illustrate how such a generalization is flawed – see the links included below for related work.

Public fisheries are open to all citizens/residents/etc. of the managing area. For example, in Maryland, any state resident is eligible to become a commercial fisherman working in a public fishery to harvest oysters. But it’s not quite that simple. Commercial fishermen must be permitted. In Maryland, to harvest oysters commercially, you must apply for and receive a Tidal Fisheries License as well as an Oyster Surcharge Permit. Typically, fisheries are managed with a limit to the total number of licenses available for a specific fishery, so not everyone can fish in a public fishery, and there are often waitlists. There are also size limits, total catch limits, and potentially other restrictions in place to try and achieve a sustainable fishery.

MS oysters in hand

In places where the bottom or water column is leased for oyster aquaculture as a private fishery, leaseholders may plant oyster seed rather than rely on a natural spat set. Here, a Mississippi oyster grower inspects oysters that he purchased as much smaller seed and is cultivating until they reach market size. Photo by: A. Michaelis.

A private fishery, on the other hand, is one where bottom or parcels of water may be rented or leased out, such as with oyster aquaculture. Individuals (or in some locales, corporations) can apply for a lease area, and if approved are granted sole harvest rights for their aquaculture species – a lease is not necessarily off-limits for other fisheries use, depending on local regulations and situations. Continuing with oysters as our example, leaseholders purchase and “plant” their own seed, or place shell or other substrate to collect a natural oyster spat set, within their leased area. They then tend their oysters until they are ready to be harvested and sold. Only the leaseholder (and those they hire specifically for the task) are allowed to harvest their aquaculture product. In this way, it is exclusive to the leaseholder, and thus is a private fishery. Anyone with a commercial harvester license, even if it’s for oyster aquaculture, cannot go harvest off of another person’s lease. That’s theft.

This distinction between the two may seem easy enough, but in reality, they exist on more of a spectrum and in each region, state, or even community, fisheries (especially shellfisheries) exist somewhere in between. As one example, aquaculture may be used to seed public fishery bottom with oysters. Oysters are produced in a hatchery, purchased, and planted on public bottom. Sometimes this oyster seed is purchased by local watermen’s groups, but if on public bottom, can be harvested by any licensed wild harvester. Another version of this scenario may be that a town or county leases bottom, plants oyster seed on it, and restricts harvest to only licensed members of that town or county. In this way, it’s a commons for the group, but on exclusively leased bottom.

Wellfleet dragger

In many of my study communities, commercial fishermen (like Melissa and Dave of Wellfleet, MA seen here harvesting blood clams) are active in both public and private fisheries.

There are multiple versions of how fisheries are managed and perceived, even for the same species, like oysters. Because of this, the line between public and private fisheries is not always so cut and dry. The same goes for the folks who work in them and how they self-identify (with regard to the fisheries they work in). Through my research, I’m trying to describe how public and private fisheries and perceived in different communities and how that may influence some of the benefits each fishery provides.


Suggested Fisheries and the Tragedy of the Commons Reading:

Inside the Degree: Traveling with Dogs

Another topic I’m often asked about in regard to my mobile life is the dogs. “How does that work with the dogs?” When I mapped out my project, one of the benefits of US-based fieldwork was that I could have the dogs with me. There was no question; my girls would be part of the adventure. At 12 and 13, my dogs are accustomed to traveling with me and, though their herding dog ancestry perhaps amplifies a need for routine and organization, are quite adaptable.

Dogs in trailer door

My “field assistants” adapted rather quickly and easily to road life. Photo by: A. Michaelis

Even so, before I dove headfirst into the whole “living in a camper” thing, I did my research to make sure it was a reasonable expectation to do so with the dogs. In an effort to answer all of the inquiring minds I’ve come across, and maybe others who are considering similar life changes or just extended trips with their pups, here are a few of the more important lessons of my year-plus tour with dogs.

Site Availability

First and foremost, if you cannot find dog-friendly campgrounds and/or RV parks, you cannot really plan to RV with your pups. This was a challenge in some places, but ultimately I was able to find suitable campgrounds and parks in all sites (actual campground/park links below, for anyone interested). When planning for camping with pups, it’s important to know exactly what the pet policies are. Do they allow more than one pet? Can pets be left unattended at the site? Most campgrounds do not allow guests to leave pets unattended outside, but many also do not wish for pets to be left unattended in the camper either. Thin trailer walls paired with barking dogs can make for unhappy neighbors.

Pet Well-Being in the Camper

It is not just barking that makes people leery of leaving pets unattended in a camper. It’s also a safety issue. Particularly during warm weather, the chance that the site could lose power while you’re away and the dogs are in the camper could become a dangerous situation. To ease my mind and ensure that I did not have a tragic situation, I purchased the RV PetSafety Monitor. It requires an annual subscription, but the overall cost (to me) is worth my dogs’ safety. It monitors both location and temperature of the camper, and will alert you if the power is lost or if the temperature deviates from the range you set. Thus far, I’ve only lost power once while away from the camper, but have peace of mind knowing that I’m immediately notified and can act accordingly.

Even though my senior pups are pretty quiet throughout the day, I also wanted to make sure that they didn’t cause a raucous. One dog is nearly deaf and both enjoy heavy naps, but they’re dogs. They’re used to living in close quarters, but I wasn’t sure how they’d handle camp life and camp sounds. I bought a white noise machine to help drown out possible triggers. Fortunately, the dogs haven’t really been bothered by campground noises, but the machine has helped me block out some of my rowdier camp neighbors who aren’t waking up to hit the water at dawn.

Pet Supplies

This is easier in some places than others. Not all of my sites are convenient to pet stores. Nor do all of them allow for mail or packages to be shipped. For all things dog (food, medicine, etc.) I tried to plan well ahead to have things shipped to friends in the area or in places that I would be passing through. It’s worked out so far, but it is a balancing act with available trailer space. For example, there’s only so much room for multiple 40-lb bags of dog food.

Medical Care

My gals are seniors. As such, calls and visits to the vet are increasingly more common. Our vet in Maryland has been wonderful accommodating my travel schedule, both in terms of planning well ahead for medications and offering over-the-phone consultations. Still, not everything can be treated over the phone. This year we’ve had 3 broken teeth, a mystery bacterial infection that both dogs subsequently acquired twice, and recently the news that senior dog owners dread but expect to hear eventually.

Finding emergency care or a one-time vet visit is not that big of a challenge (though it may be expensive), but finding a veterinary specialist willing to work with you to talk diagnoses, prognoses, and options, knowing that in two months you’ll be heading to a new state, I’ve recently found is not easy. I suppose in this section, I don’t have many tips, but more an appreciation for those veterinarians, technicians, and front desk staff who have been especially helpful (those practices are also linked below). Any recommendations I have are largely common sense for pet owners – stay ahead of your pet’s medication if they have it, travel with copies of important records, be prepared to make multiple phone calls to coordinate a vet visit, and ask locals with pets what vet they recommend.

Pet-Friendly Activities

Depending on the energy-level and personalities of your pets, it may also be important to find pet-friendly activities and places.  My girls are slow-movers at this stage, especially in the heat, but I still try to find a variety of places where we can walk and even dine. The internet has been my friend in this regard, but I’ll find many places that folks may review as great for dogs actually aren’t “legal” for dogs. I spent too many days asking beach-goers to leash their dogs or to get them out of bird sanctuaries to break the rules with my own. I typically look on a map for green spaces and then find the rules for that space. As far as dining, I use the internet, but am always prepared to ask the restaurant first before assuming my dogs can sit at an outdoor restaurant.

Dogs on beach

Seen here on a beach in North Truro (pre-shorebird nesting season), the dogs have seen plenty of beaches and trails along our tour. There is a certain degree of research required, however, to be aware of each site’s dog policies. Photo by: A. Michaelis.

Actual Travel

After 13 and 11 years with me, my dogs have made many a drive across the eastern half of the US, and are wonderful passengers. Still, I plan with them in mind when hauling the trailer all over. People always ask if they ride in the trailer, which I tow behind me. NO. Terrible, unsafe idea. My dogs have their own little space in the truck with me, where my passenger seats fold up and they either sleep (Lucy) or stare out the window (Ruca) nearly the entire ride. I don’t get great mileage hauling the trailer and I appreciate a break, so we stop every 3-4 hours for fuel, stretch, bathroom, etc. I’ve learned that not all truck stops are great for trailers nor dog walks, and sometimes have better luck at a small gas station that might have a shopping center lot nearby where I can park while walking the dogs. Or, I do our walking breaks completely separate from fuel, and utilize the highway rest areas and welcome centers, which usually have plenty of truck and trailer parking as well as a little more green space.

I think that covers most of the dog-related questions I’ve received. Just like living with pets in general, long-term traveling with them requires a few more details to be attended to, but it’s definitely possible. And, I’m inclined to think that my pups have enjoyed the past year of new beaches, trails, docks, and smells.


Dog-Friendly campgrounds/parks I’ve stayed at on the “tour”:


Veterinary practices who have been especially helpful in caring for my girls while on the road:





Sometimes, I answer questions instead of ask them

If you follow me on Instagram, then you’ve likely already seen this share, but this spring I was on a podcast!

Kara Muzia, a friend and fellow former oyster diver began a podcast this year that aims to spread stories of all things marine biology.  In her own words, “The ‘So You Want to Be a Marine Biologist’ podcast is here for those who ever dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. We share your love for the sea and curiosity to know more about the ocean and its denizens. On the podcast, we chat with people who are working hard to protect our oceans and the creatures within her realm. We break scientific jargon and important research concepts down into bite sized chunks. We show the real side of being a marine biologist, what it takes to get there, and we’re coming at you two Wednesdays a month.

Podcast Image

Check out the podcast at https://marinebio.life/podcast/ ! Image by: K. Muzia; http://marinebio.life

Check out the site and the great podcasts that are already posted – you can also find them on any of your usual podcast streaming platforms. In addition to hearing a little more about me and my own research, you can learn about awesome people studying manta rays, sea turtles, and much more.

Here are the important links:

The site: https://marinebio.life/

The podcast: https://marinebio.life/podcast/

The podcast I was on: https://marinebio.life/adriane/

Inside the Degree: Blogging on the Road

As the dogs and I are well into year two of life on the road, I’ve had my share of questions about all the joy, challenges, odd encounters, etc. that our roaming life entails. With that, I have a few posts in mind, starting first with just trying to keep up with this blog.

Plenty of people maintain blogs remotely and whilst traveling near and far. And they do a great job of it. Kudos to them. I am both in awe and inspired by them. Well, only somewhat inspired I suppose, as evidenced by my own sporadic posting. I’d like to be better about it. I’d love to share more frequent, more detailed updates. [For more frequent updates, you can find me on Instagram: 2dogsagirlandanoystertour.]  It’s a challenge to be a good blogger though, for many reasons.

First: connectivity. Many campgrounds and RV parks promise wifi (not all), but even if there is wifi, it’s not always fast. It’s especially slow when a camp full of people are trying to stream their favorite shows (my recently discovered streaming series of choice = Poldark). In response to the issue of little to no wifi, I often hear, “Why don’t you just hotspot your phone?” Great option…if I had cell signal. Campgrounds often are not located in the busiest cellular grids, and thus, many times the hotspot doesn’t provide enough juice. Or consistent juice. So, there’s one problem – actually getting online. I can, and do, go to local libraries and coffee shops to utilize their wifi, but that’s not always convenient (time-wise, location-wise, and otherwise).



There are certainly positives to staying at campgrounds, but great wifi isn’t always one of them (nor should it be – it’s a campground!). That does, however, complicate blog upkeep. Photo by: A. Michaelis.

The second obstacle to my regular blogging: time. I’m asked pretty regularly what I do with all my free time when I’m traveling and in each location. To that, I laugh, “Free time?” Though it may seem like I’m just cruising along with the dogs, stopping to play on oyster farms, I spend most of my time on the computer when I’m not on someone’s farm/boat/etc. With each day on a farm, comes a day of field notes to type up. With every person interviewed, an interview to type up. At the same time, I’m trying to code, analyze, and write up earlier data from my research in Maryland. There’s always something to be done. Even my Poldark time involves multi-tasking while scanning consent forms, downloading photos, and other research-related tasks that don’t require full mental attention. I’m not complaining – that’s the life of a PhD student – but it means that after spending every “free” minute on the computer, it’s tough to find the motivation to blog. I suppose that makes motivation obstacle number 3.

Finally, not all of my posts require additional research (case in point, this one, which is more stream of consciousness…you’re welcome). But, I try to provide some supporting information, useful links, and fact-checking to what I share. That also takes time. And internet. Still, I think that this blog continues to be a useful platform to share my research and some of the subtleties of the whole process. Whether it helps someone to learn a bit more about shellfish aquaculture, the reality of grad school and a PhD, or even what anthropologists actually do, I can see that people are at least clicking on it. And some even reading it! The oyster tour is almost over, but I’ll continue to share updates and progress, and eventual news of the final outcomes.

Oyster South

In my last post, I mentioned that one of the most striking features of the Gulf Coast aquaculture industry was its energy. It’s the enthusiasm and optimism that pervades my interviews. Last month, I was able to attend the third annual Oyster South symposium, which might be where this industry positivity gets its power from. As I suggested in an earlier post, if it’s not the source of the energy, Oyster South is at least a catalyst for it. In their own words, Oyster South “is a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to the advancement of oyster aquaculture in the southern United States.”  They are a community of oyster farmers, restaurateurs, dealers, seed and gear suppliers, writers, educators, and researchers, whose mission is “to cultivate a South that encourages and includes successful farms, healthy waters and the birth of new traditions.” And, in this grad student’s opinion, they’re pretty awesome.

Oyster South hats

Oyster South is a community in support of the southern farmed oyster, and you can support them by getting some of their awesome merch! Photo by Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant.

I was excited to be in Alabama at the same time as the symposium. I’d been following the activities of Oyster South for the past year or two, but this would be the first event I attended. I can only describe, as the anthropologist and constant observer, that the meeting wasn’t your typical meeting. Sure, it included scientific presentations, three-minute tech talks, and informative panels. It covered the bases and provided useful information for industry members from a diversity of sources. The meeting environment, however, was almost like a family reunion, and I think many of the attendees would agree. As folks entered, many hugged and greeted each other, ready to catch up on what they’ve missed. And for the newbies, like myself, we were welcomed right into the family.

Oyster South banner

The “guest book” for the Oyster South Symposium was the meeting banner, where attendees signed their names and left messages for the group. Photo by Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant.

While I’ve thus far been painting a fabulous picture of southern oyster aquaculture, everything isn’t sunshine and rainbows for southern oyster farmers – though they get a lot of those, too. It’s not all perfect. It’s not easy. It’s not a fast money-maker. At the symposium, farmers shared their tales of last year’s hurricane season. Some farmers lost everything, and it wasn’t for lack of preparation. In the weeks following the storms, sedimentation and water quality took oysters that survived the wind and surge, but couldn’t tolerate the subpar water. Growers suffered closures and had to wait to sell the oysters that did make it.  Still, even with, in some cases, catastrophic losses, southern oyster farmers threw on their boots and started over. Oyster South provides the opportunity for farmers to share these stories, providing a real understanding of expectations for new farmers, and a way to brainstorm and discuss solutions and best practices.

Symposium audience

The third Oyster South Symposium offered participants the opportunity to tour local farms and hatcheries, listen to a variety of panels, scientific, and tech talks, check out a trade show, and meet others who share the same interest in the southern oyster. Photo by Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant.

The Symposium allows for the exchange of information and experience among oyster farmers, the restaurateurs buying and serving their oysters, researchers investigating a range of issues related to oyster aquaculture, writers focused on the rise of the southern oyster and oyster aquaculture in general, and much more. And during the breaks, the receptions, and the down-time, attendees extend their networks, making connections, and probably even making a few friends, all centered upon this small bivalve that brings them together. It’s an exciting time for oysters in the south, and I’m glad I’m able to be part of this network, even if on the periphery.

Chesapeake-Gulf Coast Differences: Energy

The last feature of my “quick take on the differences between farming oysters in the Chesapeake and the Gulf of Mexico,” is the initial inspiration of this series. As you’ve already read if you’ve been following along, there are a number of general differences in aquaculture practices and trends between the Chesapeake and Gulf Coast industries. There’s another difference, however, that was most striking to me when I first arrived in Alabama and it continues to be present in my interviews, interactions, and observations.  That difference is the energy.

University of South Alabama Students working the Bama Bay lease.

During a visit to Bama Bay Oyster Farm, I met Dr. Amy Sprinkle, who’s helping to get her University of South Alabama students excited about aquaculture through hands-on training that complements coursework. Photo by A. Michaelis.

It’s perhaps fitting that, as my research aims to detail the non-tangible, hard to describe, cultural ecosystem services provided through oysters, the difference that I find most interesting and most noteworthy is something also challenging to put into words. The energy within the oyster aquaculture industry down here, however, is palpable. And positive. Maybe it’s because for many Gulf states, oyster aquaculture is a relatively new industry. Or at least new in the current approach to growing oysters. Maybe if I return in 10 years and replicate my interviews, I won’t find that same electricity and enthusiasm. I hope that’s not the case. At the moment though, there’s a forward-looking optimism as participants discuss their farms and where they’d like to take them. And it’s not just enthusiasm about their individual farm, but about the state, the Gulf, the South, and even the whole oyster aquaculture industry. It’s exciting. Growers here are part of a rejuvenation of sorts for Gulf Coast oysters. As the wild harvest has been plagued by hurricanes, oil spills, freshwater input, and runoff, the rising oyster aquaculture industry could help revive working waterfronts (though farmed oysters also must face these obstacles). These farmed oysters aren’t necessarily going to replace the wild harvest industry and re-open shucking houses that have closed over the years, because they typically target a different market – the half shell market. But, they’re helping to infuse new incomes and livelihoods into areas that need them, while at the same time promoting Gulf oysters in general, which helps both the wild and farmed industries.

Murder Point lease.

Murder Point Oysters (whose farm is shown here) represents one group helping to inspire that energy and pride in southern farmed oysters. Photo by A. Michaelis.

It’s important to emphasize that this energy observation doesn’t mean that everyone in the Chesapeake is doom-and-gloom or hanging their heads a la Eeyore when they talk about their industry. I’ve met many Chesapeake growers equally excited about their enterprise and passionate about their work. Perhaps it’s an effect of the length of time in the industry (something I’m looking at in my research), but more of the barriers and impediments are on the minds of Chesapeake growers and that comes up in my interviews. The first project in Maryland also involved questions that targeted challenges, so that opened the door to discuss the less sunny side of business. And finally, this difference in perceived energy could also be an outcome of my own time in Maryland. I worked with and interviewed Maryland oyster growers for over two years, compared to my two months in the Gulf. This enhanced familiarity may have led to a greater willingness to share what ails you, in one sense or another.  So, don’t worry my Chesapeake farmers and watermen, I haven’t forgotten your enthusiasm and love for your work – from dance parties while pulling cages, to sidebar stories that went well off the rails, there’s positive energy there too!

Chesapeake-Gulf Coast Differences: The grow-out process

The fourth distinction in my “quick take on the differences between farming oysters in the Chesapeake and the Gulf of Mexico,” is the length of the grow-out process for oysters. The grow-out process is faster down south. Warmer, generally saltier waters make for a longer period of growth throughout the year and faster oyster growth. This means a farmer can make money off of their oysters sooner (roughly a year earlier depending on the site and type of oyster they’re growing). That could have major impacts on how soon before a business starts making a profit. Using his hot off the press dissertation work, Matt Parker (UM Extension) compared how the differences in grow-out might affect profitability at the recent Oyster South Symposium.  Matt’s model indicates that, based on variable grow-out rates, southern farms may reach profitability sooner than farms in the Chesapeake Bay.

Lane shucking oysters.

Lane Zirlott of Murder Point Oysters in Alabama shucked some oysters for me that hit the water well under a year before we enjoyed them. Faster growth = oysters that can be sold sooner. Photo by A. Michaelis.

Faster growing oysters also mean that if an oyster farm suffers a loss, they can potentially recover from that loss more quickly. Some industry experts suggest that an individual farm should expect one catastrophic loss every 10 years.  Such losses could be due to major storm events, an epidemic of oyster disease like dermo or msx (which would also likely be linked to rainfall and its impact on salinity), or even individually-specific personal situations that may prevent them from working their oysters as much as they should.

Every benefit has its costs, and one of the costs of faster growout relates to labor and handling. Growers in the south need to be more aware of their stocking density – how many oysters they put in a basket or cage.  Left untended, or not tended frequently enough, oysters can grow so fast that they crowd one another to the point of death.  This means that southern oyster farmers need to plan for more frequent handling and separating of oysters, or be prepared to stock at low enough densities that the oysters have plenty of room to grow. Low density stocking, however, equals more gear and more space to spread that gear.  Oyster farmers must do their own cost-benefit analysis when it comes to gear costs, labor, and oyster handling.

Floating oyster cages

In addition to faster oyster growth, southern growers also experience more biofouling of gear. To combat this, growers often utilize gear like the OysterGro floating cages seen here — growers can flip the cages for short periods of time to desiccate and reduce biofouling. Photo by A. Michaelis.


Chesapeake-Gulf Coast Differences: Participation by wild-catch commercial fishermen

For the third installment of my “quick take on the differences between farming oysters in the Chesapeake and the Gulf of Mexico,” I’ll highlight participation in aquaculture by commercial fishermen. Important to my own research questions, there seems to be less overlap down south in terms of commercial fishermen participation in aquaculture. In other words, there are more watermen growing oysters in the Chesapeake than there are tongers growing oysters in the Gulf. At this point I can’t say if this is a *statistically significant* trend.  There are certainly more watermen growing oysters in the Chesapeake in terms of overall numbers, but thinking about it as a percentage of the industry, the numbers may not be so different between the two regions.  There are more growers/farmers overall in the Chesapeake so it’s not surprising that there are more watermen growing oysters within that larger group. In addition, given the current status of each region’s wild oyster fisheries, there are likely more wild oyster harvesters in the Chesapeake than in the portion of the Gulf that I’ve visited – a visit to Louisiana might change that trend.  On-bottom culture in the Chesapeake also, both in the past and present, fits in easily with traditional wild harvest work and has existed historically as watermen moved oysters to private “seed beds” to grow out.

Ben culling oysters from a cage.

I’ve also interviewed fishermen involved in fisheries other than oysters who have gotten started in oyster aquaculture.  Ben Mumford of Mumford Shellfish worked as an offshore fishermen before returning to Maryland to start his own oyster farm. Photo by A. Michaelis.

Why is this particular observation important to me? One aim of this project is to see how suitable oyster aquaculture is as an alternate livelihood for wild-harvest or wild-catch commercial fishermen. Does it provide the same sort of well-being and job satisfaction that people get from working in a wild fishery? As my research will likely show, a person’s livelihood choice is about more than just the money, and if commercial fishermen are expected to transition into oyster aquaculture (as is promoted in certain areas), then it’s important that they enjoy the work just as much.  This isn’t to say that all commercial fishermen should switch to oyster aquaculture, or that oyster aquaculture should be an industry occupied only by former wild harvesters. One of the good things about farming oysters is that it enables individuals who aren’t part of a family legacy of working the water to take part in an on-the-water trade. It’s not always easy for a person not connected to a wild catch fishery to enter one, but aquaculture provides opportunity in that sense. On the other side of that, it also provides opportunity for families who do have that legacy on the water to continue working the water in areas where a public or wild fishery no longer provides a consistent household income.

Chesapeake-Gulf Coast Differences: Aquaculture Parks

Continuing my “quick take on the differences between farming oysters in the Chesapeake and the Gulf of Mexico,” the second difference I’ll focus on involves the presence of oyster aquaculture parks. There are more oyster aquaculture parks down south; in fact, I only know of one somewhat similarly organized aquaculture park in the Chesapeake (readers, please correct me if I’m wrong in the comments).  Without getting into too much of the fine print, these parks are areas approved specifically for oyster aquaculture so that potential oyster growers/farmers can apply to set up their farm within these approved zones. (If you are interested in the fine print, see the links at the end of this post. )

AUSL lease

Caitlin Robitaille, with the Auburn University Shellfish Lab, scrapes barnacles off of the AUSL gear within one of the Alabama aquaculture parks. The AUSL lease is a research lease, but others grow commercially within the park. Photo by A. Michaelis

Approved aquaculture parks reduce some (maybe not all) of the headaches of the application and permitting process, and consolidate lease area in locations that are less likely to receive protests while allowing for the cultivation of a good oyster.  There was a similar idea in Maryland, with the creation of Aquaculture Enterprise Zones, but to my knowledge not much was pursued in the use of these zones and, if my interpretation of code is correct, they no longer exist.

floating cages near Deer Island, MS

Mississippi’s new oyster growers have the opportunity to train in and apply for their own lease within the Deer Island aquaculture park. Photo by A. Michaelis

There’s a very important difference with the Gulf Coast oyster aquaculture parks that isn’t present in the discussion of Maryland’s Aquaculture Enterprise Zones. Another feature of the parks that I’ve visited in three Gulf states (AL, MS, and FL) is that entities like the Auburn University Shellfish Lab with Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant, Mississippi Division of Marine Resources, and the Wakulla Environmental Institute incorporate training opportunities that folks can apply to participate in before diving into their own new business.  Trainees benefit from hands-on practice and courses. This allows would-be oyster farmers to test the waters so to speak, and ensure that not only is farming oysters something they’d like to do, but also that they’re prepared to do. Participants aren’t obligated to start an oyster farm upon completion of training, but the majority do and credit the program as being critical to their ability to begin their new business.

Wakulla Mystique oyster lease

Last fall I had the opportunity to work with Matthew and Hollie Hodges of Wakulla Mystique Oyster Farm and see the aquaculture park near Panacea, FL. Photo by A. Michaelis

In the Chesapeake, there are examples of hands-on training and education through extension programs, but they differ from options at the training parks in several key ways.  University of Maryland Extension programs for example, offer attendees the chance to get in the water at the demonstration farm or participate in a cultchless seed larval set at the Horn Point Laboratory.  Attendees can attend these programs as many times as they want and they are open to all, but it’s not quite the same experience as being given space, gear, and oysters at a training lease to personally work (with guidance available) for several months.  (Personal recommendation: for growers or potential growers in and around the Chesapeake, do attend UM Extension programs if you’re able. For those just getting started, or thinking about it, I highly recommend a visit to the Horn Point Lab Oyster Hatchery and demonstration farm.  Even if they don’t currently have a training park like in Alabama, they do provide valuable information and the extension staff are always available to answer questions or provide opportunities.)

HPL Extension

Extension programs at the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory offer attendees the opportunity to get hands-on with oyster hatchery and farm gear. Photo by A. Michaelis

Participating in the aquaculture training courses through Auburn University’s Shellfish Laboratory or the Wakulla Environmental Institute does require an application and spots are limited, but provides an extremely valuable opportunity for those getting into oyster aquaculture. (And is a requirement in order to work within the corresponding aquaculture parks.)

As I mentioned earlier, there is one similar program that I know of in Maryland. The Phillip’s Wharf Environmental Center (PWEC) began a training program while I was still conducting fieldwork in Maryland. The PWEC Aquaculture Training Program aims to involve young people in working waterfront communities to: enhance their existing wild harvest business, begin their own aquaculture operation, or develop skills to work in existing aquaculture operations. The course is hands-on and introduces students to “what you need to know to grow”: lease siting, lease application process, nursery skills, farm setup, boat selection and handling, etc. After completing the course, students have the option to work in the PWEC incubator, which provides an area of the PWEC lease to work, equipment, seed, and mentoring from setup through harvest. PWEC aims to build a certified apprenticeship program from this incubator to enable apprentices to work with seasoned growers while progressing toward their own lease.


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