Johnson Bay Oyster Company_PC Raye-Valion Gillette

Johnson Bay Oyster Company

top-water oyster farming Girdletree, Maryland
Photo Credit: Raye-Valion Gillette
Johnson Bay Oyster Company_PC Raye-Valion Gillette

For centuries, oysters have been one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most iconic species, and one of Maryland’s most valuable commercial fisheries. They have sustained communities of watermen and their families around the state for generations, resulting in maritime heritage that is deeply embedded along Maryland’s shorelines. Methods for harvesting oysters have changed with the times, and today the Johnson Bay Oyster Company is perfecting their own new techniques for farming oysters on the top of the water.

Located in Girdletree, Maryland, the Johnson Bay Oyster Company is an oyster farm run by Chuck Coleman, Joseph McElroy, and Andrew Steck—all of whom bring their own skills to the table. It is the brainchild of Coleman, a marine biologist who grew up in a Maryland oystering family and has years of experience. He started the farm five years ago and brought on Steck, who had worked as a radio executive, to oversee marketing, sales, and deliveries. McElroy, a Salisbury native who is a retired Coast Guard member and a former executive chef, focuses on catering and special events. He decided to leave the restaurant business to become an oysterman when he saw Johnson Bay, nestled inside the barrier island of Assateague, with its sparkling waters framed by the trees while driving along Taylor Landing Road. 

Together, they have made a name for themselves locally for methods they feel result in a superior oyster. Coleman explains that the faster-flowing waters near the top carry more nutrients to the oyster’s budding bivalves; beyond that, all work is done by hand, using no machinery. Coleman jokingly refers to McElroy as his “hand’s team”: he physically hands Coleman each oyster he gathers, allowing Coleman to act as quality control, making sure each one is perfect and ready for consumption. Case in point: their popular Sanctuary Salt, a clean, top-water oyster that the daily ocean tides gently tumble and salt to perfection.

At the festival, they will demonstrate oyster shucking as well as educate audience members about the benefits of combining traditional methods with their techniques for farming oysters on top of the water.

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