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Tech funding at oyster farms a pearl of great price

Oyster lovers, rejoice: Three of the 15 projects that received money from the Maryland Industrial Partnerships program’s latest funding round involve novel oyster-farming techniques, program officials announced Wednesday.

Shore thing shellfish

From front to back, Mandy Burch, Brian Russell and Sheldon Russell of Shore Thing Shellfish in Tall Timbers, a waterfront community in St. Mary’s County, plant oyster shells in the Chesapeake Bay. (Courtesy photo)

Maryland Industrial Partnerships, an initiative of the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute at the University of Maryland, provides funding for projects conducted by faculty from state universities who team up with local companies to develop technologies that could one day make a splash on the market. Each team then has to provide matching funds.

This round, MIPS awarded a total of $1.3 million to the 15 teams, and the companies chipped in $2.8 million. All the money goes to the faculty members who are leading the projects, but the companies are still eager to cash in on the opportunity to advance their technologies.

Shore Thing Shellfish LLC, an oyster farming startup in Southern Maryland, is working with a professor from St. Mary’s College of Maryland to develop a more efficient way of growing oysters. MIPS awarded their project $114,094, and the Tall Timbers-based company chipped in a 10 percent match, according to Kevin Boyle, one of Shore Thing Shellfish’s four co-owners. The match required of each company varies based on size and earnings.

Boyle said the investment is well worth it — as a startup company in a difficult industry, Shore Thing Shellfish needs all the help it can get, he said.

“Grants have really been the only thing keeping us afloat,” Boyle said. “A lot of people that get into this industry are either watermen, so they have existing capital and equipment, or they are people who have a lot of money to invest and can afford to buy the gear, the packing equipment, the refrigeration, all that. So for us, not having a lot of cash on hand, this program has really allowed us to exist as a company.”

Together with biology professor Robert Paul, the company is working to develop and test a method for growing oysters out in the water at a designated planting spot rather than in tanks on land, as is traditionally done. The current method is labor intensive and inefficient, Boyle and Paul said, because it requires multiple steps, several of which they think can be eliminated.

Many people grow oysters by dumping clean, discarded shells into a tank, then introducing oyster larvae. The larvae latch onto the shells, becoming what’s called “spat” — baby oysters that will eventually mature into adults. Then the growers have to remove the spat-on-shell oysters, load them onto a boat, take them out into the bay and dump them overboard so they can grow to full size.

“There’s a lot of labor involved in that, especially for a small-scale operation like us,” Boyle said. “So instead of loading shells into the tank on land, we designed a special enclosure that we can load the shells into directly and then drop the enclosure into the water. We believe our alternative is less labor-intensive and ultimately more cost-effective. The whole idea is to minimize the time we spend moving and re-moving things.”

The method works — at least, it did in three preliminary trials the team conducted last year with the help of another MIPS award for about $90,000. The team plans to use the new award to conduct 12 more trials this summer in different conditions, water depths and geographic areas, Boyle said.

Hopefully, the experiments will demonstrate that the method is suitable and effective for both oyster farming and bay restoration efforts on a larger scale, Paul said. The company is working to secure a patent for the method.

Both men said they think the system could be commercially viable because the inefficiencies of the current method are widely recognized among watermen.

“This traditional method of setting the spat is really time-consuming and it costs growers money,” Paul said. “So something that could help cut costs would be widely accepted, I would think. And aquaculture is a big deal in St. Mary’s County, so anything that helps the industry is useful.”

Paul — who actually taught several of the company’s owners while they were enrolled at St. Mary’s College — also noted the evolution of technology’s role within the industry.

“It used to be that technology was about making more powerful dredges and things like that; it was applied in order to harvest the oysters,” he said. “Now the technology is being applied to the opposite: growing them. So when you think about it that way, it’s really a sea change.”