Creating an oyster business, not just oysters

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Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper Baby oysters, fresh from the growing tanks, almost ready to be put out in the bay in cages.

HOOPERS ISLAND – “What we’ve done here is create a company to support an oyster aquaculture industry,” says Johnny Shockley, by way of explaining what his company, Hooper Island Oyster Aquaculture Co., is doing. “What we have here is a new opportunity to start from scratch, and write the book ourselves.”

The decline of the oyster population in the beginning of this century was the incentive behind Mr. Shockley’s pursuit, that and increasing government regulations that made it difficult for a waterman to make a living wage. A third-generation oyster dredger and waterman himself, Johnny looked into the possibility of growing oysters and finding a way to avoid the natural and bureaucratic hazards of the oyster business.

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Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper Johnny Shockley of Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture addresses the crowd at a recent party co-sponsored by Startup Maryland.

But growing generic oysters would still leave Mr. Shockley and his partner, Ricky Fitzhugh, at the whims of the market. If the oyster prices were low, supplying oysters by the bushel to wholesalers would be hardly worth the effort. Instead, Mr. Shockley saw the value of creating a brand, a boutique oyster, if you want to call it that, to cater to the rapidly growing oyster on the half-shell epicure business.

What came from that is the Chesapeake Gold oyster, created and grown for patrons of oyster bars throughout the U.S. Along the way, though, Mr. Shockley found it necessary to design and build various pieces of equipment to make the business more consistent. He immediately saw a second business opportunity making his equipment and knowledge available to other oyster farmers.

“When we started developing our system, we had a decision to make. We could have kept it all for ourselves—which we would have never been able to do—or we could take what we’re doing and sell it—the whole system, the whole concept,” Mr. Shockley says. “We chose to develop a company that would support an entire industry. Not only here on the bay, but all over the country. We’re sending equipment to Alaska, up and down the Carolinas, down into the Gulf.”

One of the people Hooper Island Oyster Aquaculture is helping came into the business three years ago, “…and he didn’t know a damn thing about the water,” Johnny said. “He came to us, and he has a farm now over on a creek that was historically an oyster farm. He put together a company and got a group of investors, and we went over there and looked at what he had. We helped him develop a boat that is customized for what he’s doing there.”

In this way, Hooper Island Oyster Aquaculture is creating an industry, and supporting it as they go.

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Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper Oyster larvae are handled carefully as they develop into baby oysters in this indoor “nursery” at Hooper Island Oyster Aquaculture Co.

“But in order to fund all that development and technology, you have to get the oyster as an end product. So you have to be able to get the message out. You can’t just sell an oyster, because an oyster’s an oyster. A Chesapeake Gold oyster, or a True Blue or a Skinny Dip or a Madhouse oyster—that’s different. That’s the key. You can’t invest in this level around the traditional fishery because it’s not consistent enough.

“Three months of the year, that investment would not be able to be realized. Not in three months. But now we have something we can sell 12 months out of the year, and we can control its production, and its marketing. In many ways, what we’re doing now is just the very edge of what this is going to be. I can guarantee you that in five years they (Madhouse, Skinny Dip, True Blue) will have an oyster bar somewhere. I know I will (with Chesapeake Gold). And these oyster bars are going to go across the country, and eventually around the world. I know it’s all going to be successful, and that’s why we built a company to support it.”

The key to producing an oyster “brand” is finding an oyster that will grow consistently throughout its life, and Mr. Shockley—as well as all other oyster farmers—found what they needed in the so-called Triploid oyster.

Oysters found in nature normally have two sets of chromosomes and are known as Diploid. During reproduction, the egg and sperm each contribute one set of chromosomes to produce the Diploid oyster. Triploid oysters are produced at spawning by a process that causes the egg to contribute two sets of chromosomes and the sperm one set, resulting in a Triploid oyster. Triploid oysters can occur naturally, although they are rare.

Triploid oysters are preferable for farming because a Triploid oyster cannot reproduce. Oysters active in reproduction go through many changes during the year, and at certain times they generally aren’t fit to eat. A Triploid oyster isn’t capable of reproduction, so just like a spayed housecat it just stays fat and happy throughout every season. That makes the Triploid more commercially viable, as well and more consistently edible at any season.

“This makes a difference to a guy with an oyster bar in Las Vegas, because he can depend on me to supply him with a good product,” Mr. Shockley tells us. “That’s the key right there.”

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Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper Johnny Shockley holds up a finished bag of Chesapeake Gold oysters, the prized result of his years of hard work.

The oyster larvae are purchased in a small bag, a ball of larvae about the size of a softball, three million of them for a little less than $1000. The larvae are put in tanks with oyster shells that have been ground down to about three microns in size. The tanks are temperature and nutrient-controlled, and the oyster larvae attach to the shell pieces and develop into spats, or young oysters.

Care is taken in the treatment of the developing larvae to keep them from attaching to themselves, and creating the multiple lobed oysters common in the bay. Instead, the farm-raised Triploid oysters grow as a single mollusk, making them easier to handle and package.

Once they develop into an oyster of a certain size they are taken to tanks outside and natural bay water is pumped through the tanks. The bay water contains natural algae and nutrients and the oysters grow rapidly. When the oysters are big enough to stay in half-inch wire cages they go out into the “farm” in the bay.

Oyster aquaculture isn’t a hands-off pursuit at that point. “’No, that’s when the dirty part starts!” one oyster farmer told us. Periodically the cages must be pulled up and the oysters removed, separated according to size and “re-packaged” into the cages; because the oysters don’t all grow at the same rate. To facilitate this, Hooper Island Oyster Acquaculture Company has created a machine that automatically separates and culls oysters according to size. But the cages still have to be pulled up onto a boat and the oysters fed into the machine. “You’ll be covered with mud by the end of the day,” the farmer told us.

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Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture Co. has created and is marketing specialized oyster handling equipment, available to any interested farmers in the business.

All three of the other oyster companies mentioned (Mad House, True Blue and Skinny Dip) were on hand at the recent celebration on Hoopers Island, sponsored by StartUp Maryland. Talking to them you get a sense of their excitement. In many ways, the oyster aquaculture business is like the Wild West, a frontier to be tamed and an almost unlimited opportunity horizon.

All of the companies may be competing for a piece of the “boutique” oyster business, but there’s little sense of adversarial competition. They have all shared information, and have helped each other, and Mr. Fitzhugh’s and Mr. Shockley’s business supplies equipment to make everyone’s business better.

There’s a good reason why this emerging oyster aquaculture business seems like one big happy family. “We’ve been bringing oysters to the market for the past few years,” Mr. Shockley says, “and each year we fail to meet demand. Each year, more and more oyster bars are popping up in cities across the country, and we’re all going to have to push to keep them supplied. Right now, we don’t see a limit to the business we can do.”

In anybody’s book, that means Hooper Island Oyster Aquaculture Co. is in the right business, at the right time.

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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