WHTE PLAINS, Md. – Charles County is surrounded by water—the Potomac, Patuxent, and Wicomico Rivers and all the tributaries that come off the Potomac—with a living ecosystem that local residents and watermen depend on. With April 1 being the official start of crab season, we contacted the President of the Waterman’s Association of Charles County, Bill Kilinski, to find out how the blue crab market, and local seafood industry in general, was faring this spring.

Well, as it turns out, Kilinski specializes in oysters, not crabs. He owns the Cobb Island Oyster Company and has been oystering since he was 14 years old. He sells them fresh off the boat to local restaurants and individuals. And, though oyster season is officially over, and crab season has begun, he’s still oystering. He took us on a boat ride at Cobb Island to see how it’s done.

Kilinski has several oyster leases in the waters around Cobb Island where he plants and grows oysters, which allows him to harvest year-round.  (More on that to come.)  Kilinkski uses a technique called dredging (imagine a great big rake attached to a basket). He demonstrated how to lower the dredge and then drag it along the river’s floor bottom. When he brought the basket up, it was full of oysters. These were thrown back into the water, but they are normally washed, packed with ice, sold locally, and make it to someone’s plate the same day.

“Oysters have been both good and bad this year,” said Kilinski. “We’ve had some good catches, but the prices have been low due to COVID.” In fact, all types of catches have been impacted by the pandemic, except for crabs. That’s because local seafood is most often sold to restaurants, and those were closed or had major restrictions during the pandemic. Crabs are often sold direct to consumers, and since Marylanders love our blue crabs, people are willing to pay more.

“Locally, it’s been a bad start to the crab season,” said Kilinski. On our boat tour, he pulled a crab pot (basically a wire cage) that had been in the water for five days and only had three crabs. Kilinski didn’t have an opinion as to why the season has gotten off to a slow start. There are several theories, including crabs being eaten by catfish and other species, poor weather, and males being over-hunted. Basic supply and demand means a higher price for consumers.

The oyster population in local waters has been a concern for decades.  “During the 1950s and 60s, the Wicomico oyster harvest was equivalent to today’s total Chesapeake Bay catch,” said Kilinski. “Men would come from all over Maryland and work the Wicomico River back in the day.” Local watermen are working to bring back oysters to those numbers. Kilinksi and others are planting oysters there this summer.

Before getting into planting oysters, it might be a good time to talk about the difference between aquaculture and wild fisheries. Fisheries take place in open water and mainly deal with catching, processing, and selling fish, oysters, crab, and other sea life. Aquaculture involves the cultivation (or growing) of those things in leased areas of water. Planting and growing oysters is a new way of farming.

Kilinski buys oyster larvae from a hatchery, places them in a clean tank of water with shells where they develop into eggs, and then transplants them to the river. It takes about three years for them to grow to the right size for harvesting.

Stripe bass (or rock fish), catfish, gizzard shad, and eel are all harvested from Charles County waters, and their dockside values were very low in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Watermen are better paid when they sell direct to the customer. The EDD recently offered a grant for local farmers and watermen who wanted to start selling online. This grant provided $2,500 to recipients for creating a website or otherwise enhancing their online presence. But for seafood lovers who would rather have someone else do the cooking, residents can support our local economy by eating at one of our many seafood restaurants.

For more information about how the Charles County Economic Development can help your ag business, contact the EDD’s Agriculture Business Development Manager, Martin Proulx, at ProulxM@MeetCharlesCounty.com