A native of coastal Maryland, Imani Black grew up in the shadow of Chesapeake Bay’s Black watermen—a line of fisherfolk that stretches back 200 years. Many of us appreciate the fruits of their labor, but that passion usually stops at meal’s end. Not so for Black, who fell for the sea at marine science camp when she was 7 years old. But her eureka moment came years later, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests. She loved her job as an oyster farmer but couldn’t understand why the field of aquaculture was devoid of other people of color.
To fix that, Black launched her own organization, Minorities in Aquaculture. Today, the nonprofit counts members from around the world, and has been instrumental in giving Black women the opportunity to pursue careers on the water. “We’re creating a space where women can pursue any sector of aquaculture they’re passionate about, and have the tools to create a career on their own terms,” she says.
Nautilus spoke with Black about her role as “black sheep” of her family; why it’s important to support women of color in aquaculture; and exactly how oysters go from larvae to your dinner plate.
What sparked your interest in marine science?
I grew up in a coastal community on the eastern shore of Maryland. I always loved the water, but I never really considered oyster farming until much later. When I was 7 years old, I wanted to be an astronaut. I ate freeze-dried food for a week—that’s how determined I was. But then the Challenger blew up and I saw it on TV, and I was like, oh my God, I don’t think I’m ready for that. Later that year, I went to marine science camp, which was really hands-on, and I learned so much about striped bass and blue crabs and submerged aquatic vegetation and oysters. And that was when I got bitten by the marine science bug.
Much later, I got my degree in marine biology and was on track for tropical biology, and then I got an internship with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Virginia doing oyster restoration. And I was like, wow, I really like this a lot. My boss at the time suggested Virginia Institute of Marine Science because they have an oyster aquaculture program. I got accepted into the program and the rest is history. My love for oysters has just grown from there.
What is it about being out in the water that you like so much?
One of the things that I love about working as an oyster farmer is that I get to be outside all the time, work with my hands, be physically active, and generally have a great time. I mean, who doesn’t love their office being the water every day? I truly feel like I was meant to work on the water.
And it just so happens my family comes from a 200-year-long line of watermen on the Chesapeake Bay. But I didn’t know for a very long time that my family were watermen. In 2020, right before I started Minorities in Aquaculture, I realized that minorities, especially African-Americans, played a huge role in the history of the Chesapeake Bay. And when I started to explore that history, I was like, wow—there are a lot of influential people here.
I’m kind of the black sheep of my family. Everybody is a lawyer or a doctor—my mom’s worked in the criminal justice system for 25 years and my dad is a psychiatric nurse. So when at a young age I said I wanted to save the environment, they were like, what? Where is that coming from? But it all just made sense to me.
How do you define aquaculture?
In layman’s terms, it’s the production of marine organisms in a controlled environment. Like land farming, but in the water.
I’ve done some land farming, but I’ve never farmed oysters. How does it all work?
There are three different stages of oyster aquaculture: hatchery, nursery, and farm. The hatchery is where all the oyster larvae are created. To start the process, we get adult oysters from institutions like Virginia Institute of Marine Science, where they focus on the genetics of creating resilient oysters. You put those adult oysters in a tank and you trick them into thinking that it’s summertime by turning up the temperature like it’s June or July, though we start the process in January. And then we just flush them with food.
Aquaculture is going to become the only source of our seafood, just like farming.
When it’s warm and there’s plenty of food around, the oysters know they need to pack on as much energy as they can to create babies. They start to reproduce their gametes. Once they are reproductively mature, we turn the temperature down to mimic the winter, which then signals to them, oh, it’s winter, I can’t reproduce anymore. And that gives us time to regulate how many oysters we’re creating at a time, to last us through the whole season.
A female can hold about 60 million eggs. Once we go through that process, the oyster larvae are in the hatchery for about 18 to 24 days. When they’re ready to just be sessile, then we take them outside into the nursery, and we set them on cultch, which is basically just ground-up oyster shells. To that microscopic larvae, it’ll look like a huge rock, and they will set on it. They’ll be in the nursery for a couple of months, and then they’ll go out into the farm, where they’ll be until they are the right size for harvesting. The whole process takes about 18 months.
What does an oyster farm look like? Is it out in the open water?
It depends on what type of lease you have. The last oyster company I worked at, we had a floating upweller system, which basically was like a nursery but in the water, and you just kind of let them do what they’re going to do. You clean them every couple of days, especially in the summertime when just things are growing all the time, and pretty much just let them go.
And then once they get to an inch or an inch-and-a-half in size, we move them to the farm, to bigger baskets or bags. The oyster farm where I worked had bags that were on longline systems. Once they were ready to get harvested, they would go into our shallow lease. And then in the wintertime, anything that hadn’t grown to be harvest-sized yet we’d move into our deeper water lease, so that if the bay froze over, they’d be a bit deeper and safer until the next season.
Is climate change impacting the oyster business?
Absolutely. Oysters are very resilient, but they can be temperamental, and they are very sensitive to temperature and salinity changes. In 2018, when I was working as an assistant hatchery manager, we only produced about a fourth of what we usually produce, because we had so much rainfall that our salinity was too low. We just couldn’t grow anything. Oysters just weren’t really liking the conditions. Everyone’s seeing these issues now because of climate change.
Wow. That’s an amazing process. How does it all play into the restoration side of aquaculture?
Historically speaking, I think aquaculture gives minorities and underrepresented communities a sense of belonging—restoring something that their ancestors might’ve done. But it’s also really important that people just know where their food comes from. Aquaculture is going to become the only source of our seafood, just like farming. You can’t have enough food without farming and you’re not going to be able to have seafood without aquaculture. An industry that brings over $16.8 billion in one year into the U.S. is something that people should know about. And if it’s something that our food resources are moving toward, people should care about it and want to be involved so that it continues to be sustainable.
When you talk to people about your work, the whole notion of the legacy of the community must be a real eye-opener for many.
Yeah. A lot of accounts that we have of minorities in commercial fishing don’t come from actual minorities. They’re secondhand accounts. There’s not a lot of data or information on what their accomplishments or contributions truly were. And when you look at the current statistics for the Chesapeake Bay, there’s only eight Black captains out of thousands of watermen that are on the bay. And they’re all over the age of 60.
Maritime occupations have been so important to our coastlines that we can’t afford for people not to be a part of it. Minorities in Aquaculture is about diversity and inclusion, but it’s also just really about something that’s so urgent. And I mean all aspects of aquaculture—not just oysters, but kelp and coral and fin fish and all the other things are super-important, too.
I encourage people to find what they love and then try to bring that into aquaculture.
One thing that powered you to start building Minorities in Aquaculture was the social justice movement of the last few years. Could you talk about how that influenced your decision to push it forward?
I lost my job a few weeks before George Floyd’s passing in 2020. As a person of color, I just got so passionate about what was happening. And not a lot of people in aquaculture were showing their alliance for the injustices that were going on. I fully intended to be in aquaculture for the rest of my career, so it felt disheartening that people within aquaculture didn’t see value in showing alliance to people who looked like me.
A few aquaculture organizations had put out their statements of diversity and inclusion and their action items. A common thread was like, “We’re going to bring this diversity and inclusion topic to our conferences and forums.” Mind you, aquaculture conferences, like many conferences, are $500 or more to attend. I was like, who’s going to be a part of that conversation? Not the people who need to be. That was the moment when I realized, okay, this is a lot bigger than me. I didn’t really know where it would go, but I felt the need to at least do something. I started Minorities in Aquaculture that same year.
That’s amazing. Tell me more about your organization.
Up to that point, I had been an oyster farmer for about six years, and I had never worked with another woman of color who was in a leadership role. At my first aquaculture job, I was the only woman out of maybe 15 guys at an oyster farm, so it didn’t really matter if I was Black, white, red, or whatever—it just mattered that I was a woman. But when I started working with other women, I realized I’d never actually met another Black woman or another woman of color that was running a hatchery or farm or anything like that. I got really curious and started asking people within my aquaculture cohort if they knew any women of color in leadership roles, and no one could give me an answer.
Minorities in Aquaculture has grown from being a community for women of color to something that also provides career-building opportunities. Aquaculture is going through a major labor shortage right now that’s costing billions of dollars a year. I figured this is a missing demographic, so it’s hitting on the diversity and inclusion piece, but also my love for aquaculture. We’re creating a space where women can have career opportunities in whatever sector of aquaculture they’re passionate about.
How do you go about inspiring women to get involved with aquaculture?
I used to hear that I was the only woman of color working from Maryland to Texas in the aquaculture industry. And I was like, for one, I don’t think that’s true. And if that is true, that’s very alarming. But now we have over 50 members from the United States and internationally as part of Minorities in Aquaculture.
A lot of people don’t know how important aquaculture is. But once they see the importance of it, many want to explore it in different ways. I don’t really push people to become oyster farmers, because I know that not everybody wants to work on a farm or do physical labor. I encourage them to find what they love and then try to bring that into aquaculture, so we can figure out how they might create their own careers.
You’re getting some good organizational support, aren’t you?
Oh my God, yes. I was not expecting for it to blow up the way it has. I’m super grateful for that. And I think the more we grow, the more presence we have, and the more people see the need for it, it will become something that will truly make waves in aquaculture.
We’ve got some really great partners that are helping us with these opportunities. Our members are mostly from the East and West Coasts, but we’ve got a few in Norway, one in Sri Lanka, and a few in Italy. One of our members who is originally from Nigeria is doing research on Norwegian salmon, and wants to do salmon aquaculture in Norway. So you can see how it’s just expanding across the world. One of our biggest contributors is Oyster South, which is a coalition of Southern oyster farmers. We have a partnership with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. We have a cohort in Maine, too—Maine aquaculture is really blowing up with kelp, oysters, and mussels.
What kind of services or programs do you offer to members?
I think one of the important things that we offer is a sense of community. I try to meet with all members individually so that we can get to know each other, and I can get to know their desires and passions. But we also offer fully-funded career development opportunities. With our internship program, we are trying to remove all the barriers for minorities in marine science.
The two biggest hurdles are cultural and financial. For example, 65 percent of Black people in the U.S. don’t know how to swim. One of our fully funded programs, Minorities on Course, gives women and other minorities in our community the opportunity to get their captain’s license and get time at sea and with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and also with some of our Black captains that are on the bay. We also have a water safety course with a local swim organization. We’re pretty much saying to them, whatever you want to do, we will figure out how to get you there. You just go and you build your resume, you build your career the way you see fit, and everything else will be taken care of: boots, waders, oilskins, stipend, meals, transportation, housing, all of that.
Where might you and your organization be 10 years from now?
Like everybody else, my life took a complete 180 in 2020. I never expected to be running a nonprofit at the same time I’m getting my master’s degree. If I can look back in 10 years and see that I’ve really stuck to my morals and values and I’m still doing the things I love, helping our members and growing Minorities in Aquaculture in a positive way, then I’m on the right path.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is a Grammy winning and Emmy nominated film director. He has achieved critical acclaim photographing world leaders and major cultural figures, including presidents, writers, artists, actors, and musicians. Greenfield-Sanders’ photographs are in numerous museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, The National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and The Brooklyn Museum.
Lead photo: Courtesy of Imani Black