But Johnny, who is 50, finally gave up dredging for oysters three years ago because the Bay’s shellfish populations had plummeted. His father, Dorsey, hung onto the family’s tradition for two more years. But then he, too, finally stopped harvesting oysters last winter at the age of 72.
Johnny said he did not want his son, Jordan, who is 22, even trying to follow in the family’s line.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a waterman. It’s a great lifestyle. The problem is that it’s no longer a way to make a good living,” Johnny Shockley said on the docks in Fishing Creek, on the Honga River. “Looking forward to where the trend was going, by the time he was old enough to get started out, there was to have been nothing left for him.”
But instead of being swept under by the tide of change, the Shockleys learned to ride the tide and profit from it.
Working with his father and son, Johnny Shockley launched an oyster farming business, called the Hooper’s Island Oyster Aquaculture Co. It grows a fast-growing but sterile version of native Chesapeake oysters in tanks and underwater cages. The family took advantage of a special low-interest state loan program designed to encourage oyster aquaculture.
The Shockleys are now selling 25,000 of their oysters per week to high end-restaurants from New York to Richmond. They market them under the brand name “Chesapeake Gold.” But more interestingly, the Shockleys are in the business of selling the idea of how to grow oysters. They are marketing the techniques and technology of aquaculture to other former watermen and entrepreneurs in Asia and around the world.
“We’ve got our own unique system of growing oysters, and we are selling that system,” Johnny Shockley said. “We’ve got 12 employees not only growing oysters but building equipment, developing programs and processes.”
On their website, C. G. Oysters dot com, customers can buy a floating dock with plastic silos for growing seed oysters. Price: about $8,000. Customers can also plug in their credit card numbers to buy oyster tanks, seed scoops, conveyor belts, and machines called tumblers that roll the oysters so they end up with a pleasingly round shape that is easier to sell.
Aquaculture is a fast-growing industry. In Virginia, the number of aquaculture oysters sold has grown 35 fold over the last eight years, from 800,000 in 2005 to 28.1 million in 2012, according to Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Maryland’s industry is not as developed, but is also growing.
In an effort to encourage oyster farming, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s Administration three years ago made it legal to lease river bottom on the Eastern Shore for oyster farming. Since then, the state has approved 85 new leases for aquaculture –- half of them to former watermen like the Shockleys, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
But it’s not just locally that oyster farming is on the way upward. Johnny Shockley recently returned from an international seafood convention in Hong Kong, where he sold his technology.
“I think it’s the beginning of the next revolution,” Johnny Shockley said.
But Johnny Shockleys father, Dorsey Shockley, is an old school waterman. He admits he viewed aquaculture with some suspicion for the first several decades of his career, because he saw it as competition.
But now he’s on board with his son’s business model – and even at the wheel.
“I take the boat out on the farm and pull the cages, and separate the oysters,” Dorsey Shockley said, as he stood beside the gurgling oyster tanks on the docks in Fishing Creek. “I cull ‘em out, and keep what we need to sell.”
The new wave of oyster farmers have been helped by a growing resistance of oysters to diseases, called MSX and Dermo, according to Mike Naylor, shellfish program director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Dermo killed 90 percent of oysters in some parts of the Bay about a quarter century ago, but no longer, Naylor said.
“We have the lowest Dermo mortality rates that we’ve had for several decades,” Naylor said. “We are losing roughly 10 percent of our oysters a year, which is in line with all the other causes of oyster mortality.”
The oysters are evolving to survive. And so are the watermen.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation