38° North Oysters, The Perfect Degree of Oyster Production

by / Newsroom Ink on March 11, 2015
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JD Blackwell, the COO (chief oyster officer) of 38° North Oysters, has turned his western Maryland shore company into an entrepreneurial, sales and development savvy operation that has created the ideal growth environment for the ideal food — oysters. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor

When you reach your 40’s everyone needs to have a mid-life crisis, for Maryland born and bred JD Blackwell he never dreamed his would involve playing nursemaid to millions of bivalve mollusks growing in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

Blackwell, the COO (chief oyster officer) of 38° North Oysters, has turned his western Maryland shore company into an entrepreneurial, sales and development savvy operation that has created the ideal growth environment for the ideal food — oysters.

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Blackwell quickly learned the first lesson of oyster aquaculture is not making money, at least initially. It took a year and a half for him to come up with a floating cage that could withstand the conditions of the Cheasepeake. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“Because of some previous successes in life I had some spare time on my hands in 2010, so I decided to have my mid-life crisis and spend time in Florida, said the handsome Chesapeake waterman.   “When you get to your 40’s you sort of need to have a mid-life crisis, so I spent the next two years in Florida researching oyster aquaculture all over the world.”

With the Sunshine state as his part time base of operations, Blackwell started gathering data, all types of data and from every part of the country. What type of water is best to grow an oyster? Where are the best areas to market oysters?  Should an oyster be salty or not?  All questions that he sought answers from hundreds of oyster experts and farmers he met on trips taking him to on all three U.S. coasts.

Blackwell’s journey can serve as a guide to revitalize the Gulf Coast’s struggling oyster industry.

Oyster Lessons Learned

JD Blackwell quickly learned the first lesson of oyster aquaculture is not making money, at least initially. “You get involved with this business because it is fun and you enjoy the processes of figuring everything out. You hope that that the money part eventually comes, but if your not having fun figuring it out, you are never going to make money.”

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Blackwell’s operations are all within a rock throw of land. The floating oyster cages are located just 150 feet off shoreline on the open Chesapeake Bay. Huge international freighters navigate the distant ship channel to Baltimore and other ports. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

Traveling around the country he visited oyster operations from Massachusetts to Oregon. Every oyster aquaculture operation seemed to have some nugget of wisdom they were willing to share.  “As I traveled around seeing what others were doing I started to assemble the best practices for my own operation.  There are a million little things that need to be done correctly, from tying a knot to the water you choose to plant,” he said.

During his oyster study period he found that almost everybody everywhere had some good idea. Traveling and talking he eventually assembled a concept on how to make oyster aquaculture work in his chosen area. The real struggle for him was everything was site specific – what works for one operation isn’t verbatim going to work for someone else.

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Traveling around the country, Blackwell visited oyster operations from Massachusetts to Oregon. Every oyster aquaculture operation seemed to have some nugget of wisdom they were willing to share. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

With the opportunity to visit numerous world-class operations he found himself face to face with oyster people who really knew what they were doing; those that were turning out large volumes of oysters, scientists, watermen and even the tinkers.  “I gathered a sense of the critical ideas needed to start to assemble the process, equipment and procedures of my oyster venture,” said the Chesapeake oyster operator.

“When I started looking into oyster aquaculture, I figured out there were basically six or seven different businesses that had to be mastered. I knew I couldn’t be everywhere at once, so I decided to start a nursery and work myself up,” he explained about his operation. “ First I got my nursery plan figured out, then I got my growing plan figured out, then came distribution and finally sales. I have those four business working, so now  I am just now starting to think about hatchery operations, and it is one of the hardest.”

St. Mary’s County, Maryland

St. Mary’s County is the birthplace of Maryland as well as its first state capitol. It was the idea of Lord Baltimore George Calvert who wanted a place where all religions were allowed to practice freely. In 1634 more than 140 passengers aboard the Ark and the Dove landed on St. Clément’s Island in 1634, just a few miles from the current fields of 38° North Oysters.

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The Maryland eastern shore has always been one of the main seafood producing regions of the Chesapeake Bay. It was once the largest oyster-shucking site on the area. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

The Maryland eastern shore has always been one of the main seafood producing regions of the Chesapeake Bay.  It was once the largest oyster-shucking site on the area.

A newcomer to Chesapeake oyster farming, Blackwell planted his first oyster in August of 2013. Currently he has three three-acre sites spread along approximately five miles of the Maryland coastline, as well as a small nursery to grow seeds he purchases from various hatcheries.

Blackwell buys 1 mm oyster seeds from various hatcheries on the east coast, hatcheries that until this past year have faced few problems producing the young oyster larvae. “The recent problems that seem to exist for larvae production on both coasts by all kinds hatcheries do not seem to be affecting the seed; if I can get a 1 mm seed I can grow it,” he explained. “I have had huge success growing the oyster seed, but I also have this magic water that is the single best resource in the world for oysters….at the end of the day Maryland just has magic water!”

Floating and On-Bottom Oysters

Located a hour and a half south of Washington, D.C., 38° North Oysters are grown in two different ways, one in floating cages and the other in on-bottom cages. When the small seeds arrive from the hatcheries, Blackwell grows them in the nursery till they reach a size of between 10-15 mm. “The seeds are then placed in the cages and lowered into our magical waters,” he said.

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“At this site I am as exposed as you can get,” Blackwell explained about his unique floating cage placement. “Thirty percent of the time the water is as smooth as the face of a mirror, but multiple time a year we experience waves surpassing four feet. It has taken me more than a year and a half to figure out how to survive the large waves with the floating oyster cages.” Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

It is critical for oyster aquaculture to have a reliable source for larvae and seed in order to grow oysters.  Oyster farmers are facing numerous problems around the country, and algae seem to be at the heart of the whole issue.

“It is clear that there are tons of issues and struggles for the industry; serious long-term players are having failures left and right,” he said about the oyster seed industry. “When are we  going to figure out the problem and solve it; that’s a question I just can’t answer.”

Blackwell’s operations are all within a rock throw of land. The floating oyster cages are located just 150 feet off shoreline on the open Chesapeake Bay. Huge international freighters navigate the distant ship channel to Baltimore and other ports past an abandoned lighthouse.

“At this site I am as exposed as you can get,” he explained about his unique floating cage placement. “Thirty percent of the time the water is as smooth as the face of a mirror, but multiple time a year we experience waves surpassing four feet.  It has taken me more than a year and a half to figure out how to survive the large waves with the floating oyster cages. My gear routinely survives a full on hit of a Nor’easter having winds of more than 40 mph.”

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Blackwell says he has a certain kind of water he likes; shallow and big, with an average salinity of 14%. His on-bottom cages sit in very shallow water. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

According to the Maryland oysterman, he knows of no other operation that has ever put floating cages in such demanding positions in the Chesapeake region.  It has required calculation after recalculation on how to survive the rough waters and tides. “ I have had multiple strategies and about five generations of gear modification to figure out how to make it hold up in these conditions. I have lived through setback after setback, but now it is working.  I see that the benefits hugely outweigh the costs,” he explained.

Blackwell says he has a certain kind of water he likes; shallow and big, with an average salinity of 14%. He feels his acres are in in the single best sites anywhere in the region. “We love the floating cages because the waves help produce a rounder, thicker oyster,” he said. “It has a better presentation and much more meat ”

“Given how fast we grow great tasting oysters, I venture to say that I am in the single best spot in the country for this system,” he added. “What we are doing here are growing oysters in what I feel is an ideal salinity regime for oysters. There is no single magic bullet, but instead 200 little decisions that when you get each one close to right you get something good.  When each is off the mark, you crash.  The two biggest issues in growing oysters are food, and viability of starter seeds being successful.”

Chesapeake Watermen

Olafur Hulduson and Ethan Davis, two employees of 38° North Oysters, navigate a tight on bottom oyster field in a secluded part of the Bay by poles on rope. The pair had just put into place more than 160 new bottom growing oyster cages in the heart of the cold winter, with had another 80 or 90 yet to do. When the cages are in place, six bags of oyster seeds will be placed in each cage.  As the oysters grow two bags will be removed and placed in new cages, resulting in a total of four bags per cage at harvest.

“It gets to be a little cold out there on the water this time of year,” said Ethan Davis who comes from as an historic Chesapeake waterman family as it gets; working the Bay’s water for more than five generations. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“It gets to be a little cold out there on the water this time of year,” said Ethan Davis who comes from as an historic Chesapeake waterman family as it gets; working the Bay’s water for more than five generations. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

Their mission on this cold January day was is to inspect growing oysters and monitor their harvest time.

“They look clean, healthy and close to harvest age,” explained Hulduson in his Icelandic accent.  The former Haddock and Cod commercial fishermen said that the Bay has perfect weather to harvest oysters. “This is perfect weather all year around; it never gets that cold here.  I moved here in 1984 to get away from the deep line fishing.  It got very, very cold out on that boat,” he went on to say.

The “rack and bag” on bottom oysters are grown on a shallow hard bottom. During harvest Hulduson and Davis work on cages while standing in the water. “I saw this system while visiting a Seattle oyster producer,” said Blackwell. “It is always more efficient to work on your feet, so I kind stole the Seattle idea and modified it for our waters.”

“It gets to be a little cold out there on the water this time of year,” said Davis who comes from as an historic Chesapeake waterman family as it gets; working the Bay’s water for more than five generations. “I love the water and we have some of the best oysters in the world here.”

“I was impressed with the distinct but different flavors of JD’s oysters,” said Gulf Seafood Institute’s Jim Gossen, chairman of Sysco Louisiana Seafood, after a recent visit to his two Southern Chesapeake oyster farms. “With the continued decrease in wild oyster production on the Gulf Coast, the off bottom and caged oyster aquaculture that JD is doing makes sense.”

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“I was impressed with the distinct but different flavors of JD’s oysters,” said Gulf Seafood Institute’s Jim Gossen, chairman of Sysco Louisiana Seafood, while visiting Blackwell’s operations. Gossen listens as Ethan Davis (center) and Olafur Hulduson explain the on-bottom oyster farming techniques. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

Gossen says that the Gulf oyster industry needs to focus on quality because the quantity will never be what it was in the 1950’s and 1960’s, same as the Chesapeake has experienced.

“It is time that the Gulf Coast learns from the Chesapeake and move forward with hatcheries and aquaculture,” he explained. “Our changing habitat and water quality will make mariculture in the coastal regions a necessity in the near future. Aquaculture gives oystermen the ability to plant oysters where they grow best and produce the greatest flavor.  Both JD and I are convinced that aquaculture is the future of the oyster industry.”

Revitalized Chesapeake Oyster

The marketing efforts of the new Maryland oyster company have also been well researched.   Never an expert in your local community, all of Blackwell’s oysters are shipped out of state and around the world.  “I only sell to one local restaurant and that is because they makes me lunch every day,” he said.

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Ten years ago the Chesapeake lay barren of oysters, even five years ago only a few successful aquaculture farms lined it banks.  Ethan Davis and Brian O’Roark hall in an on-bottom caged oyster sack to be inspected. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

One of his West Coast distributors has been shipping his Chesapeake oysters to Tahiti and Bangkok.  “It befuddles me how I can grow an oyster here in southern Maryland, ship it to Seattle where it is put it in a container and flown to Bangkok – how does that make sense, much less a profit? I have no idea how that is really happening, but I find it flattering,” he said with a gleam of pride in his eyes.

Ten years ago the Chesapeake lay barren of oysters, even five years ago only a few successful aquaculture farms lined it banks.  Today Chesapeake oysters are filling shortages caused by lack of production in the Gulf of Mexico.

“When people talk about the revitalization of the Chesapeake, terms like unclean and polluted are often used incorrectly,” he explained. “One of the real issue in the area came down to a greater algae content than in past because of land-based nutrients flushed into the Bay by more than 17 million inhabitants. With a warmer climate those nutrients reproduce at a more rapid rate.  When the algae dies and breaks down it squashes other kinds of life and causes other problems.”

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Davis (l) and Blackwell open a sack of oysters while O’Roark keeps the boat steady. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

According to Blackwell the chemistry of the Chesapeake Bay is out of balance. “Have we fixed that? No. Are we trying? Yes. Has it been significant? The reports as I read say that we haven’t done enough.  That doesn’t change the fact that this is the oyster’s natural home, and he still survives here just fine,” he explained on why Chesapeake oysters are making such a rapid comeback.

“Algae, the very thing we call bad is good for the oyster,” said Blackwell on why oysters are a great product for humans to eat; great for the environment and great economics for his region. “The oyster only eats algae, basically they are water cows eating grass.  My oysters are eating the grass growing in the Chesapeake Bay.”

It takes two months for an oyster seed to get to 10 mm in Blackwell’s nursery, then nine months to a year for off-bottom to reach harvest size.  At around 14 months on-bottom caged oysters reach their harvestable size. “When we harvest we take the oysters out of the bag and grade them as we go, with the smaller ones being returned to the water to grow,” he explained about the harvesting process.

State and Federal Involvement

An efficient permitting system, on both the state and federal level, is needed for the Chesapeake oyster industry to become an outstanding viable industry for the future of this region.

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“If we can get passed the regulators, both federal and state, I believe we will create the second largest industry in our county,” Blackwell explained while heading out to inspect cages with his project manager Brian O’Roark. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“If we can get passed the regulators I believe we will create the second largest industry in our county,” Blackwell explained about permitting requirements. “This was once a waterman and farming community, and it can easily return to seafood producing community if we can simply get past some of the permitting problems and are allowed to operate in a responsible manner.”

The first-generation oyster farmer feels his cage gear creates habitat, “all that little stuff that is growing in the cage draws bigger fish, like bluefish. It is amazing what kind of sea life we see in the cages. We get crabs and eels, but nothing that hurts the oysters. Area fishermen are telling me that with the oysters return, they are seeing larger catches than ever in recent years.”

For Chesapeake oysterman DJ Blackwell oysters are the keystone filter product for the entire Chesapeake Bay.  “As oyster productions returns, other species, especially crabs, will start to come back. Once the ecosystem starts to returns to a proper balance, all other seafood should start to do well,” he said confidently sitting at the edge of his dock.

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About the Author

About the Author: Ed Lallo is the former editor of Gulf Seafood News and CEO of Newsroom Ink, an online brand journalism agency. .

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