Chesapeake Insider

Imani Black


 Shellfish aquaculture biologist Imani Black is the founder and president of Minorities in Aquaculture, a nonprofit that seeks to create a more diverse aquaculture industry by educating minority women on the restoration and sustainability efforts that aquaculture provides for our local and global seafood industries.

Tell us a bit about yourself! Where did you grow up?

I’m from Chestertown on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I went to Queen Anne’s County High School and then went to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia to play lacrosse and earned a Marine Biology degree. I moved back to Maryland in 2017 and am now an oyster farmer. I have worked in the aquaculture industry for five years in shellfish hatcheries and oyster companies in Virginia and Maryland.  

Have the outdoors and nature always been a big part of your life?

Absolutely! When you grow up in a coastal community like the Eastern Shore, it’s part of the  culture here to have some connection to the environment in some way. We take a lot of pride in living on the Chesapeake Bay. I’ve always loved the restoration and conservation efforts for the Bay, and have wanted to have a career helping preserve marine life so that it can continue to be beautiful.

How did you find your path toward a career in oyster aquaculture?

Honestly, I kind of fell into it, and as time went on, my career continued to lead in that direction and I fell in love with it. I had an internship with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Oyster Restoration team in Virginia the summer before my senior year at ODU, and being in that position really confirmed that this is what I wanted to do. My boss at the time suggested that I apply for the Oyster Aquaculture Training Program at Virginia Institute of Marine Science to see oyster restoration from the commercial side. Gratefully, even though I was still in school, VIMS agreed to work with my schedule and that was my first real introduction to all things aquaculture. From there, I worked for oyster companies in Virginia, and then I moved back to Maryland to work for Maryland Environmental Service at Poplar Island – which brought me back to my hometown.  For the last two years, I was the assistant manager for the first privately-owned shellfish hatchery in Maryland, and am still continuing my career in all aspects of the aquaculture field.

And now you've started a nonprofit. Tell us about Minorities in Aquaculture. What is your mission?

Minorities In Aquaculture (MIA) is truly an extension of my passion for the aquaculture industry. What really started this whole journey was me asking myself, “Are you doing all that you can for something that you claim to love so much? How much are you really contributing to your environment, your chosen field and the people around you, and what can you do to continue to do that?” If we say that we love the environment and we want to continue to create sustainable solutions, then we should be encouraging people from all races and backgrounds that are also affected by the health of these resources, to be in these marine science spaces. Perspective is power. Our movement to restore our environment can only be positively impacted if more minds and ideas join the cause. With this organization I want to promote the aquaculture industry’s sustainability and restoration impact on our seafood resource in our coastal communities in any way that I can. I am an African American female oyster farmer in a male-dominated field trying to contribute to all the positive efforts in this space. MIA is constructing a network, opportunities, and education to women of color like myself who want to pursue a career in this field. I’ve worked with and created relationships with some amazing people in aquaculture that have mentored me throughout my career. Thankfully, they saw my passion and potential and gave me an opportunity, and MIA is just my way of passing that forward to the future of aquaculture and to minority women.

Starting a nonprofit from scratch must be an amazing journey! What have you learned so far?

This whole experience has been a whirlwind, and I’m so grateful for the support I’ve gotten for MIA. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that the things you do will never turn out the way you expected them to, so just go with it, continue doing the work, and life will be everything that it was supposed to be. Early on in my pursuit of becoming an oyster farmer, I learned if you want to do something in your life you just have to push through and do it no matter if anyone thinks you can or not. The journey feels so much better because you stood up for yourself and demanded nothing less than what you wanted for life; and no matter what happens – ups and downs – you feel proud because you focused and trusted yourself.  If you had told me two years ago – or even back in January – that I would be where I am as a person, in my career and in this diversity and inclusion movement, I wouldn't have believed you! I’m truly so blown away by this, and I can’t wait to see it grow, to continue to build connections with amazing people, and be a part of these important conversations.

There are so many untold stories of the Chesapeake. Is there a particular one that you've discovered that you'd like to share with Find Your Chesapeake?

I wouldn’t say I have a particular favorite but I’ve been really diving into these African American watermen histories and their role in Chesapeake heritage. Reading about the adversity that they faced and all that they still accomplished, along with learning about my own family’s history of Bay watermen, I’ve had time to connect my story and truths with these experiences. I’ve found a lot of strength reading about influential African Americans on the Chesapeake. Even though it saddens me when I realize now how much minorities have been in some way removed from the history and evolution of the Chesapeake Bay, it inspires me to help bring more people of color back into our environmental spaces.

What's your favorite place to visit in the Chesapeake and why?

That’s a hard one too! I truly love the Bay for all that it is – as funny as that sounds. Like I said before, it’s a way of life here and I have a lot of pride in loving and being a part of the beautiful things that the Eastern Shore has to offer. I realize how privileged we are to have something so resourceful and impactful on all of our lives like the Bay right in our backyard. Especially this time of year, with fishing season going crazy, there’s nothing better than spending a sunrise or sunset out on the water with friends just enjoying where we live. As I get older I have a greater appreciation for the Chesapeake. It holds so many memories already, but the more I start putting down my own roots and building a career in my hometown, the more I feel connected to it than I ever have. One of my favorite places to visit is the Chesapeake Heritage & Visitor Center, a great place to get a feel for the vast ecology, history, and culture of the Chesapeake Bay.

Chesapeake Heritage & Visitor Center

The Chesapeake Heritage & Visitor Center helps visitors discover the many sites to visit in the region. As a regional information center, Center staff can assist visitors with directions, information and visitor services.

Jody Couser

Jody is the senior vice president of communications with the Chesapeake Conservancy. She has a public relations background and served as spokeswoman for Anne Arundel County, MD. 

December 24, 2020

Main image: Photo by Caroline J. Phillips
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