Region hosts oyster tour from Mississippi

MD-Mississippi delegation tours DorCo oysters

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
A delegation from the state of Mississippi came to visit Dorchester County recently to learn more about local success in the oyster aquaculture industry. The visitors toured Horns Point, Phillips Seafood, and the home of Chesapeake Gold Oysters, above.

HOOPERS ISLAND — Dorchester County hosted a group traveling from Mississippi this month, learning about our area’s oyster aquaculture in hopes of improving oyster harvest success in their home state. The group visited Horn Point laboratory, as well as Phillips Seafood and Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture Company on Hoopers Island, and were also treated to lunch at Old Salty’s on Hoopers Island.

“We’re hosting a contingent from Mississippi who are tasked with coming up with a plan for the future of the oyster industry in that state,” Johnny Shockley, of Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture told us. “They’re coming here today to see the way we do things here, so they can put their future plans together.

“They’re having the same sort of difficulties we have here,” Mr. Shockley continued. “Mother Nature’s having difficulty keeping up, and the oyster industry down there is in trouble, as it has been here, and still is. So in defense they are trying to create a program based on sustainable production, to either create a new industry down there, or at least set the old industry in a new direction.”

It comes as no surprise to hear that Mississippi’s oyster harvest is low, considering all the bad news from the Gulf states in the past decade.

“Mississippi’s oyster industry has been through a difficult time over the last decade due to several natural and man-made disasters,” said Jamie Miller, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, who was also on the tour. “Our governor, Governor Phil Bryant, signed an executive order this February establishing a Governor’s Oyster Restoration Council. This contingent we brought to Maryland all serve as members of that council. We have traveled throughout the Gulf, and now up to the Chesapeake Bay area to learn from the oyster industry here from the University of Maryland and from the DNR about what successes they’ve had from aquaculture and other technologies that we want to bring back to Mississippi.”

The group was given a close-up tour of Horn Point and a detailed examination of the laboratory’s techniques for spawning and growing oysters. They’ve been to see the scientists,” Mr. Shockley told us with a smile, “and now we’re bringing them down here to see how it all works in the real world!”

“We’ve been very impressed,” Mr. Miller told us. “We’ve toured Horn Point hatchery yesterday; that’s an amazing facility. We went to see some remote setting facilities, and we went into the bay to look at some remote restoration sites. Really, the knowledge and the best information just comes from the conversations that you have with the people who have been doing this for decades.”

In talking with oyster men on the Eastern Shore, the subject of competition never really comes up, since the demand for oysters today far outpaces production in any region. That was obvious this winter, when an extremely cold month iced over many of the Bay’s rivers, and forced the oystermen out of work. By the beginning of March the price of wild oysters had been driven up to $100 a bushel.

MD-Mississippi delegation tours DorCo oysters 2x inside

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
Johnny Shockley (left) explains his process of setting spat on shell at the Hoopers Island Oyster Aquaculture Company.

Of the Mississippi delegation, Ricky Fitzhugh, partner owner at Hoopers Island Oyster Company said, “We’re here to help them with anything we can help them with, to try to get the oyster market back down there. They were talking last night about how low their production has been, and what they anticipate for the next couple years. The next years don’t look good, so they’re trying to find another option.

“You know, this is a different industry,” Mr Fitzhugh continued, “because we manufacture equipment as well to try to help other people in the oyster business. This is one of the few businesses where you try to help your competitors. The thing is, we’ve got a sustainable product — if we don’t have enough to satisfy the market, then restaurants will not have oysters on the menu.”

“We’re looking at ways we can do business together,” said Johnny Shockley. “What we have here is a company creating new ways of growing oysters and producing the equipment to grow oysters. Hopefully we’re going to figure out ways that we can work together and send some equipment to Mississippi. Once they get up and running we can share ideas and the conversations going around this new technology we’re all using.”

The folks from Mississippi are optimistic about the potential future successes available using oyster growing technology from the Eastern Shore.

“Our problems and challenges are very similar, and our cultures are very similar,” said Jamie Miller, “so we look forward to bringing some of this knowledge back with us.”

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

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