Class of 2000
When you’re slurping oysters on the half shell or enjoying a plate of fried oysters, you can thank your local watermen – and Katie Preen Busch ’00, the deputy director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Aquaculture Division.
Oysters were once so plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay that hundreds of shucking houses operated throughout Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and mountains of discarded shells grew along the water’s edge of its fishing towns. But by the beginning of the 21st century, the bay and its tributaries had lost 80% of its oyster habitat. The perfect storm of disease, run-off, and overharvesting had slammed the oyster industry, and Maryland’s wild oyster harvest slipped to precipitous levels. Shucking houses closed, the shells disappeared and, with fewer oysters filtering the bay’s waters, water quality suffered as well. The Chesapeake Bay, its watermen, and Maryland’s economy were in trouble.
Maryland lawmakers responded in 2009 with new legislation that would help the oyster population rebound while bolstering the fishing industry. Instead of every oysterman fending for himself, the State stepped in to create a new business model whereby oysters would be planted and harvested on Bay and tributary bottoms leased to Maryland’s watermen. Katie Preen Busch ’00, a Washington College graduate with a master’s degree in marine biology and biochemistry from the University of Delaware’s College of Marine Studies, was tapped as deputy director of the new aquaculture division.
A biology major with a minor in psychology, Busch had performed contractual work with the Environmental Protection Agency before joining Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources in 2005. As deputy director, Busch is charged with implementing the Oyster Restoration and Aquaculture Development Plan. Working closely with growers and various state and federal agencies involved, she knows that collaboration is key to the program’s success.
“The aquaculture industry is different from other commercial fisheries because we’re managing private industry,” Busch says. “The natural population is so dependent on environmental factors that wild oyster harvesting has been a self-limiting enterprise. With the wild population not rebounding, the idea was to invest private dollars in farming the shellfish. This way, as mature oysters are harvested, new spat is continuously replanted.”
The aquaculture program really took off, she says, when the State offered grant opportunities to commercial watermen licensed for wild harvesting as an incentive to adopt this new approach. Traditional watermen are now recycling oyster shell, producing their own oyster seed, growing shellfish in cages and floats, and reseeding natural oyster reefs.
In addition to rehabilitating natural habitat, new legislation opened up thousands of acres of bay bottom to aquaculture. Busch manages the bottom leasing rights, helps watermen navigate the process of getting licenses and permits, and coordinates efforts among various stakeholders, including the Maryland Department of Health, the Department of the Environment, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Last year alone, Maryland and its aquaculture business partners produced and planted a record 1.25 billion native baby oysters. The oyster harvest in 2013 grew nearly three-fold over the previous year.
“I’ve been involved with program since its inception, and it’s really rewarding to see our efforts pay off,” says Busch. “Last year, we saw one of the highest harvest rates in recent history. Just 8,000 bushels were harvested in 2012. That grew to 22,000 bushels in 2013. This year, we expect to see more than 50,000 bushels of oysters come to market.”
Will that upward trend continue?
Busch responds with the wisdom of a lifelong waterman. “Every year is different in terms of weather and rainfall. It’s hard to model what’s going to happen next year. It just takes one storm to upset that delicate balance.”
But there is also cautious optimism that the native oyster population can be restored to historic levels.
I think we’re making positive steps in the right direction,” Busch says, “but we’ve got a long way to go.”