While African American culture has deep roots in oyster farming in Virginia, like much of the Western aquaculture industry, the space remains overwhelmingly white at both the academic level and in leadership roles at public institutions and with private companies.
For Imani Black, a shellfish and aquaculture biologist who grew up in a coastal community on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, the industry's lack of diversity was obvious from very early on in her career.
Black, who is currently a faculty research assistant at the University of Maryland's Horn Point Laboratory, also worked as an assistant hatchery manager with Maryland-based Hoopers Island Oyster Company, and prior to that as an environmental field specialist at the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island in Chesapeake Bay.
"I really love oyster culture and all of the things that it does that are beneficial, and impactful to our seafood resource," Black said of her field. "But we don't have many minorities that are engaged in marine sciences."
While Black has had an impressive career in research and private industry, her interactions with other people of color in the oyster industry had mostly come on the labor side.
That has by no means been the case historically, and the more Black learned about the critical role African Americans played in the development of the Chesapeake Bay seafood sector, the more she realized something needed to change.
"Once I really started to dive deep into the history, it shaped me and influenced me," Black said.
"I realized that there was this huge gap that was missing and I really had to look at how I felt about it as a person of color."
A time for action
Black already had been working in aquaculture for several years when the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum following the murder of George Floyd and killing of Breonna Taylor. The protests were some of the most widespread in US history.
The movement inspired her to establish the nonprofit Minorities in Aquaculture (MIA) in June 2020, with the goal of creating a more diverse aquaculture industry.
"I wanted to create a space and a network of empowering women of color and giving them internships, mentorships and just career development opportunities that they normally wouldn't be exposed to or normally wouldn't be aware of," she said.
"[I wanted to] really educate them about what's going on in our culture and how they can create a career on their own terms and in their own time."
Black also hoped to help network members navigate the weight of racial and gender disparities they encounter in their careers. As a woman of color, Black found herself in an industry heavily dominated by white males, especially at leadership levels. And that began to take its toll.
"In the beginning of 2020, I started to reevaluate where my career was," she said. "I had never worked with another person of color that was in a leadership role."
One way Black hopes to engage more people of color in marine science is to help them connect with it on a personal level.
I started to reevaluate my career. I had never worked with another person of color that was in a leadership role.
"Personal stories, I've learned, carry a lot more weight than any other type of stories," she said.
"You know when you can really tell somebody your connection to what you're doing, what you love, then they can also feel that."
Part of that connection is recognizing African Americans' role in helping create and develop the US maritime industry.
"People of color have had a huge and prominent footprint in the evolution of our commercial fisheries," Black noted.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was just one of the African Americans in maritime history to leave a mark. He worked as a caulker in the Baltimore, Maryland shipyards and had intimate knowledge of ships and sailing that would ultimately help him escape slavery.
Slaves and freeborn African Americans built and sailed ships, harvested fish and shellfish from the Atlantic as Chesapeake watermen and fishers, and risked dangerous seas in search of whales, writes NOAA, which helped build the region into the robust commercial fishery it remains today.
They also used industry to build up their own families and livelihoods.
"Because seafood at the time wasn't a huge commodity, they used part of their daily catch to feed their families and have resources for their families to live in coastal communities," Black said.
However, early 19th-century laws limited the power of free African Americans to fully participate in the industry, and sometimes even took earned property and resources away from them through Jim Crow laws.
"And that really stunted the engagement of minorities on the Chesapeake Bay in commercial fishing," Black says.
Still, people of color have persisted in the field. Black points to individuals such as Kermit Travers, who is one of the first and last African American skipjack captains. And Vincent O. Leggett, who for decades, has also served as a historian, author and advocate focusing on black watermen.
Not at easy task
Just one year into its existence, Minorities in Aquaculture already has around 50 members, and its partners include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the US Aquaculture Society.
When you can really tell somebody your connection to what you're doing, what you love, they can feel that
While Black says she is grateful for the support and outreach she has received from members of the seafood industry, the work remains challenging.
When people ask her for a list of women of color working in aquaculture, it's hard to point to anything definitive.
"It's like we have to start from the bottom," Black said. "But it's ok, because with this platform, I'm going to find them."
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