Five years after conception, the privately owned Ferry Cove Oyster Hatchery is now producing millions of seed oysters for Maryland’s oyster industry. The high-tech, multi-million dollar facility located on Route 33 between St. Michaels and Tilghman Island moved into full production mode this spring after completion of construction at the end of 2021.
“We’re producing good quality larvae and have already seeded some leaseholds and grounds,” said hatchery manager Steven Weschler this week. “Now we’re scaling up even further, increasing production, monitoring and adapting as we go along. So far we have no issues; cross fingers and knock on wood. We’re pretty ecstatic with how it’s all functioning.”
Weschler said oyster farmers Ferry Cove has sold its product to so far are very happy with the quality of the product. ‘I’d say we’ve produced about 100 million seed oysters at this point.”
Stephan Abel, prime mover behind the Ferry Cove operation, said the Ferry Cove hatchery has the capacity to produce two to three billion eyed larvae – seed oysters – per year. Oyster larvae develop what is known as an eyespot which detects light and helps guide them to the bottom of the water column when they are ready to eventually attach themselves and grow into the bivalve creatures that most of us know.
Although the recent northeaster that hammered Delmarva’s coast cooled Chesapeake waters to below normal temperatures for this time of the year, that problem has now passed. With temperatures rising again, Weschler said demand for seed oysters will also begin increasing. Seed oysters do their best attaching to shells and other bottom structure when water temps reach into the mid and upper 60s.
After the seed oysters attach themselves and begin growing, they should reach market size in about two years.
Weschler said the greatest portion of oyster seed sales so far have gone to private producers working bottom leased to them by the state. The state requires leaseholders to plant oysters on a certain percentage of their holdings each year. That requirement is part of the master plan to help restore the Chesapeake’s historic oyster-growing capacity, for economic and environmental benefits.
One of the problems with that requirement has been a shortage of available seed oysters. Abel said part of his business plan is to help fill that gap.
Another portion of Ferry Cove’s anticipated annual production of seed oysters may go, said Weshler, to the various oyster-producing counties in Maryland for planting on public fishery bars. The state puts out contracts each year for oyster seeding but they haven’t been advertised yet for 2022.
Ferry Cove wants to join University of Maryland’s Horn Point oyster hatching facility near Cambridge as a major provider of seed oysters for the state’s growing oyster farming operations and to help make public fishery bars more productive.
Abel said there are currently 7,700 acres of Chesapeake bottom leased for oyster farming. “And,” he said, “recent reports indicate there are another 100 leases pending. Those same reports indicate further that 2021 was the best year yet for oyster farming, in terms of total bushels harvested, since the state started the program several years ago.”
Several individual leaseholders are increasing their leasehold acreage, according to Wechsler. Abel said a study a few years ago determined that a minimum of 100 acres is the threshold for making money in the oyster farming business.
Now that Ferry Cove’s facility has proven it can produce quality seed oysters, Weschler is ready to increase production from its current 50 percent capacity. “June, July and August are the prime planting months in the Chesapeake. Oyster seed attaches best when the water is warmer, and the little oysters need time to grow to the point where they can best survive the winter. That’s what we’re aiming for now.”
Dennis Forney has been a publisher, journalist and columnist on the Delmarva Peninsula since 1972. He writes from his home on Grace Creek in Bozman.