Research partnership focuses on growing more oysters in Maryland waters

Maryland has a $600 million seafood industry, so as part of National Seafood Month, we are highlighting one of the state’s successful aquaculture partnerships located in Southern Maryland.

By: Amanda Winter, Maryland Department of Commerce

As the unofficial “seafood capital” of the world, Maryland has a number of thriving aquaculture companies… but did you know this is partially due to our state’s prime geographic location?

In St. Mary’s County, where the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay come together, lies 38 North—an aquaculture business perfecting the “Crassostrea virginica,” or Eastern oyster as they are more commonly known.

With a chain of oyster farm fields located at 38° latitude (the perfect distance north of the equator for growing), 38 North is surrounded by sea and natural wetlands that provide these mollusks with Maryland’s local flavor.

According to JD Blackwell, the chief oyster officer at 38 North, oyster aquaculture provides many benefits to the environment and the economy. Blackwell was introduced to the industry a few decades ago in Southern Maryland, and when he noticed Maryland began changing its laws surrounding aquaculture nearly 10 years ago, he got the urge to join in. He officially founded 38 North as his third business venture in 2012.

“Oyster aquaculture is fundamentally creating jobs, bringing new money into Maryland from outside the state, and providing an important environmental service,” said Blackwell. “It’s more than just filtering green algae from the Bay’s waters—we’re providing all kinds of environmental services that go unnoticed.”

Blackwell explains that there isn’t a “downside” when it comes to oyster aquaculture. Not only are the farmers benefitting the local community, but the oysters themselves are benefitting the consumer.

“Oysters are a superfood. Most foods we eat are a man-made creation…but the oyster isn’t. It’s really the same food that existed a million years ago,” he said. “It’s grown in the wild, without any pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics, and it’s a very healthy food that hasn’t been tampered with. It’s great for humans.”

The farthest distance 38 North has shipped oysters is into Polynesia, but the company primarily ships around the country. They also provide oysters throughout the region with the help of Baltimore-based seafood distributors to restaurants in the Baltimore and Washington Metropolitan areas, and locally at the Ridge-based business Courtney’s Restaurant & Seafood and Blue Wind Gourmet in Lexington Park.

But with such a large market to keep up with, 38 North had to start thinking out of the box when Maryland’s perfect geographic location encountered a few snags. With 2018 being named one of the wettest years on record throughout the Mid Atlantic, and BWI measuring nearly double its average precipitation, excess rainfall brought historic amounts of freshwater into the Chesapeake Bay. The overload of freshwater killed many oysters, and it’s also prevented plenty of them from growing. Oysters thrive in saltier (or brackish) water, which is what the Chesapeake Bay is typically known for.

38 North applied to take advantage of the Maryland Industrial Partnerships (MIPS) Program, which led to research with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) Chesapeake Biological Laboratory along the Patuxent River in Southern Maryland. 

“There’s a number of challenges for aquaculture, but one is getting the baby oysters started. There’s a current low rate of turning larvae into seed,” said Blackwell. “If you start off with one million larvae, you generally only have 150,000 turns into oyster seeds. From there, maybe only 75,000 seeds get to adulthood. We proposed doing research on larvae behaviors to see how we could have a higher setting efficiency.”

The oyster farm is still doing research with UMCES, and it has worked out well, said Blackwell. 

Ronnie Gist, associate director of MIPS, credits the 38 North team for not only working to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay but for also planning ahead for the years to come.

“JD Blackwell is one of the best things to happen to the Maryland oyster industry,” said Gist. “38 North is strategically looking ahead and trying to apply new technologies to an ancient industry that has been doing things the same way for hundreds of years. That’s what the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory does…tries things that haven’t been done before.”

With more than 30 continuous years of funding from the state, MIPS helps companies accelerate their technology development through industry and university research partnerships. 

“Typically when companies are at a certain stage – mostly startups – it’s hard to get funding from big investors,” said Gist. “You might have a prototype built, but you’re not quite far along enough for them yet.” That’s where MIPS steps in to help companies expand their growth and development in Maryland.

In 2009, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources approached MIPS with the idea of funding research and development for companies developing products that help the Chesapeake Bay. Specifically, DNR wanted to support projects focused on improving water quality, including sediment runoff and nitrogen and phosphorus reduction. 

The funding comes from the Innovative Technology Fund, a partnership between several state entities and the Environmental Protection Agency, and began with $250,000 for two rounds per year. Now in its 11th year, the fund has benefitted several innovations that contribute to a sustainable ecosystem, including new agricultural runoff designs and green roof projects.

Gist works diligently to make sure every county in Maryland has participants in the MIPS program, scouting out startups and mature companies for each round of funding. To date, he says there have been 18 individual oyster projects—including two with 38 North.

“Besides Southern Maryland, there are many [aquaculture] projects happening on the Eastern Shore,” said Gist. “It’s a pretty even split between the Eastern and Western Shores. We’re focused on helping people do it in a more efficient manner.”

For more information on MIPS, contact Jeanne Pekny. For projects specific to aquaculture or the Chesapeake Bay, contact Ronnie Gist.

Maryland combines a great climate for growing, where both family farms and major manufacturers thrive. Learn more about our agribusiness industry and check out upcoming only-in-Maryland seafood festivals.


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