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Booming Maryland oyster business creates conflicts

The oyster business is booming again on the western shore of Maryland — the state has issued 111 oyster-farming leases in the last few years — but the region’s watermen are not happy.

They argue that the cages used to cultivate oysters are a menace to fishing lines and crab pots and, in some cases, an eyesore for residents with waterfront homes.

Unlike commercial oyster farmers, watermen can fish, crab and seek wild oysters with a mere license on public waterways. Farmers must get state-issued leases and some watermen are pressing the state to limit them.

“You don’t put one person out of business to start another,” Maryland Watermen’s Association president Robert Brown told the New York Times. “If you put a bunch of cages on the bottom of the water, how are you going to put your trot line down? You can’t sift for crabs, you can’t clam there, you can’t fish there, you can’t even sportfish there. I am worried about all of it.”

Oyster farmers — a mix of scientists, businesspeople, new-career seekers and others — argue that by recreating oyster reefs they are helping to clean the area’s bays, stimulate the ecosystem that sustains crab and fish populations and return a tradition to the region.

“I think we can be the modern watermen and bring back this area’s heritage,” said J. D. Blackwell, whose company 38° North Oysters is among a handful of players here.

Farmed oysters, like their wild kin, are filters for the water — one oyster can suck down and spit out 50 gallons of water a day — but are less prone to disease.

“Oysters are the kidneys of the bay,” said Kara Muzia, aquatic program manager for the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

Some farmers are working to cultivate relationships with watermen, exchanging skills and knowledge as the state works to mediate compromises.

“I have been in the middle of it,” said Tom Courtney, 68, who has worked as a waterman his entire life but buys oysters from some of the farmers for his popular, ramshackle seafood restaurant. “It’s a good way to get into a business down here, where everything is against you.”