Understanding Decisions to Participate in Oyster Aquaculture in Maryland-Implications of Livelihood Diversification on Resilience

Principal Investigator:

Jen Shaffer

Start/End Year:

2016 - 2018


University of Maryland, College Park

Co-Principal Investigator:

Adriane Michaelis, University of Maryland, College Park


Strategic focus area:

Sustainable fisheries and aquaculture


In Maryland, oyster restoration projects have attempted to enhance the Chesapeake Bay's wild oyster population and restore critical ecosystem services provided by oysters. Oyster aquaculture, paired with restoration, is a sustainable alternative or complement to wild harvest that can reduce fishing pressure on wild populations, contribute to the ecological role of oysters in the bay, and provide a more rel iable source of income for those involved. The potential of oyster aquaculture in Maryland, however, is hindered by resistance to aquaculture by Maryland's wild oyster harvesters, hereafter referred to as watermen. My research aims to investigate this resistance and address issues related to watermen's involvement in oyster aquaculture.  My project involves two objectives with multiple hypotheses.  The first objective is to provide a detailed description of who is participating in oyster aquaculture in Maryland, through general demographics, self-identification as watermen, and type of aquaculture involvement. Though basic, the inquiry is important in enhancing the understanding of Maryland aquaculture. I will also investigate the role of livelihood diversification in participation. I predict that watermen who have already demonstrated modes of livelihood diversification will be more likely to participate in aquaculture than those who have not.  My second objective is to describe the reasoning behind individual decisions to participate in oyster aquaculture. I anticipate that several themes, related to support and resistance toward oyster aquaculture, will emerge through interviews. I predict that those participating in aquaculture do so as a means of increased resilience. In this case, resilience may be considered as it relates to a variety of unknowns, including an unreliable wild oyster population, changes in oyster management and policy, as well as a means of preparing for future impacts of climate change. I also expect that themes will exist among those who choose not to participate, with emphases on heritage associated with the wild fishery, as well as distrust of management, policy, and enforcement. Lastly, I will investigate the role of social networks in influencing watermen's participation in aquaculture. I will attempt to identify patterns in willingness to participate in aquaculture related to influence of certain well-connected or powerful actors. I predict that the influence of central figures will be present in network trends of participation. Through this project, I expect to provide a rich and descriptive representation of Maryland's oyster aquaculture industry, as well as details regarding how social networks within Maryland's oyster industry influence individual decisions to participate in aquaculture. This is relevant to management, as it highlights current aquaculture development targets and how the industry can benefit through efforts focused on those not participating. It will also contribute to social network analyses by developing information regarding current, and potentially future, aquatic livelihoods. Additionally, this project will serve as the starting point to extended dissertation work focusing on oyster aquaculture in the Chesapeake Bay.


Relevance: Maryland's oyster population is at less than 1 percent of its historic levels. As a result, the state invests millions of dollars each year in restoration so the Chesapeake Bay can continue to receive ecosystem benefits oysters provide. Oyster aquaculture is a net positive for the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland. Oyster growers add oysters to waterways, which encourage biodiversity and filter the water. They also add jobs in coastal communities. But despite encouragement from the state, many watermen are hesitant to enter the aquaculture business. If researchers can understand why, their findings may influence policymakers to make the path to aquaculture smoother.

Response: Researchers with the University of Maryland's Department of Anthropology observed watermen and oyster farmers in coastal communities throughout the state and conducted 16 network analysis interviews about the future of Maryland's public and private oyster fisheries. Interviews emphasized why and how individuals became involved in aquaculture, or opted to avoid it. They also participated in numerous oyster watermen and policy meetings to understand underlying attitudes and drivers of participation by waterman in oyster aquaculture.

Results: Preliminary findings indicate that watermen are increasingly involved in aquaculture while remaining active in the public oyster fishery. For many, aquaculture provides income that can be drawn upon if needed. Still, challenges remain. There are concerns over initial aquaculture start-up costs and applying for loans set aside for aquaculture, changing harvest practices from wild to aquaculture, and competition between the public and aquaculture fisheries for the best available Bay locations for oyster production. These findings helped inform state managers concerning Bay bottom leasing for aquaculture and informed Maryland Sea Grant extension agents regarding potential barriers to entry for watermen.

Related Publications:

Michaelis, AK; Walton, WC; Webster, DW; Shaffer, LJ. 2020. The role of ecosystem services in the decision to grow oysters: A Maryland case study Aquaculture529 . doi:10.1016/j.aquaculture.2020.735633. UM-SG-RS-2020-08.

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