James.qxp Sept Oct 2018 web (2) - Page 50



O
ysters are more than just tasty bivalves pulled from the
sea to be slurped up in restaurants and at oyster roasts.
Did you know they’re potentially big business for
Georgia? Experts estimate that the state’s aquaculture business
could potentially generate $5.25 million in oysters by 2022.
Does the Peach State have the potential to become the Oyster
State? History and geography suggest that the answer is yes.
Years ago, coastal Georgia was a major commercial source
of oysters, with canneries located across the region and local
oystermen playing your trade along coastal area waterways and
rivers. Now, the Peach State has the chance to put itself back
on the culinary map by once again producing high-quality
oysters that can be featured on menus at top restaurants.
Georgia has a huge built-in advantage. The state is home
to one third of the salt marsh on the nation’s East Coast. Its
largely unspoiled saltwater bays and estuaries are the base of a
thriving seafood industry, including the delectable blue crab
and the highly sought-after Georgia wild shrimp.
Believe it or not, in the early 1900s Georgia led the nation
in oyster production, annually harvesting 8 million pounds of
oyster meat, primarily for the canning industry. By the 1940s,
the industry was in decline due to over-harvesting and the
decreasing demand for canned oysters. The last shucking
houses in coastal Georgia closed in the 1960s and harvested
oysters now are primarily sold in clumps for private roasts.
But the demand for oysters, particularly among high-end
restaurants, remains strong. Americans still devour about 2.5 billion oysters annually, according to the Maryland-based, non-profit
Oyster Recovery Partnership. About 85 percent of those oysters
are from the Atlantic coast. Most start as hatchery-reared seeds
that are “farmed” and raised in the ocean to be the plump, glistening “singles on a half shell” that oyster lovers prize. Oysters on the
half shell also sell for three times as much as a wild oyster.
Now the oyster industry is casting its eye on the Southeast
coast, especially Georgia. It sees mile after mile of largely untainted shoreline and sees opportunity. In fact, other East Coast states
are already cashing in big time. Last year, Virginia sold more than
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JAMES
SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2018
40 million oysters from its eight oyster regions, producing the
largest quantity of fresh, farm-raised oysters in the country.
So everyone from regulators to seafood company owners
to shellfish farmers want Georgia’s commercial oyster farming
to take off, and state Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons, is ready to
lead the charge in the Georgia Legislature. He says state laws
and rules allow properly licensed people to use floating cages
and mesh bags to practice aquaculture to grow and harvest the
type of single-shell oysters restaurants serve.
There are currently just 10 commercially licensed oyster
harvesters in Georgia but they can only harvest wild oysters,
not farm the kind of individual shellfish desired by restaurants.
Instead, they must stick solely to the less marketable clumps of
“wild” oysters that grow naturally in local waters. Those
clumped oysters still have a fantastic briney taste and are great
for backyard oyster roasts. Yet the individual oysters are small
and often have razor-sharp edges, characteristics that make
them less desirable and valuable.
What the Industry Needs to Thrive
In order to truly have an industry that makes real money for
a lot of people, Georgia needs a commercial oyster seed hatchery. Fortunately, Georgia is ahead off the curve on this point. The
University of Georgia operates a hatchery on Skidaway Island
just outside Savannah, but it was never meant to take the place
of free enterprise. It is part of the UGA Marine Extension and
Georgia Sea Grant and is a collaborative effort between UGA
Marine Extension specialists, resource managers with the state
Department of Natural Resources, the Georgia Department of
Agriculture and the Georgia Shellfish Growers Association.
Potential oyster farmers will need more than a steady supply of seed oysters. They also need to be able to use the cage
and mesh bag system to produce the right kind of marketable
oysters, as opposed to those that grow naturally in clumps on
muddy river bottoms along the coast.
By the way, growing oysters from seeds is a lengthy, laborintensive process. Oysters start out as larvae, so small that they
are invisible to the naked eye. In about a year, they can grow to
about 1-inch to 1-1/2 inches. They usually reach market size
within 18 months to two years. On an oyster farm, baby oysters
need to be handled often and tumbled against one another.
Hence, the cage and mesh bag system.
The mesh bags that contain them are
placed in the water must be shaken regularly. This causes the baby oysters to
rub against each other’s shells. The outside edges of baby oysters are fragile and
represents new shell growth. As the delicate fringe breaks off during the tumbling process, the oyster is prompted to
grow thicker rather than longer, eventually forming an oyster with a deeper
“cup” that holds more meat and liquid.
Unattended oysters tend to grow longer
and flatter, looking more like long potato chips.
The UGA oyster hatchery on Skidaway Island could produce 15 million seeds by 2022. The shellfish hatchery has provided the 10 licensed growers with the seed and cage equipment to collect data about how the oysters grow in Georgia’s
waters. From those placed in mesh bags, about 70 percent of
the oyster seeds grew to the 3-inch harvestable size. If things
began moving quickly to allow state growers to begin aquaculture, state experts estimate the business could generate $5.25
million in just six years, by 2022.
No doubt that number would continue to grow but, as it
is, the rules just aren’t there yet. Until the state begins permitting oyster-growing gear and a commercial oyster hatchery
springs up, Georgia’s oyster business will remain a small and
limited endeavor.
A regulatory system must be in place to ensure that
Georgia’s oysters are safe for human consumption. At the same
time, the ecosystem must be protected. There must be a system
of enforcement and permitting in place for the gear, the places
and the ways in which oysters are grown. Fortunately, Georgia
does not have to re-invent the entire process. Other states are
already doing this, and Georgia simply has to follow suit.
Clean, untainted water is critical. Oysters are filter feeders. Growing oysters feed on naturally occurring plankton in
the water, which gives them a unique flavor that is both salty
and sweet (experts say Georgia oysters have a hint of lemongrass). Sewage is Enemy No. One to a healthy oyster industry.
It’s instructive to know that the New York harbor was once
home to a thriving oyster industry until big city pollution,
flushed into the harbor by New York’s rivers, rendered the
oysters there inedible.
What the Legislature Can Do
State laws are needed to ensure that Georgia’s farmed oysters are safe to eat and that the local ecosystem is protected
throughout the farming process. For Georgia’s oyster farming
industry to take off, state legislators
must pass regulations regarding aquaculture equipment and how waterways
can be used for commercial farming
under state law. This will help maintain
the integrity of each year’s oyster harvest, similar to what Georgia already
does to protect its prized Vidalia onions.
Among ancient Greeks there was no
doubt that there was a clear connection
between oysters and the gods— in particular, the goddess of beauty and love
Aphrodite. Legend has it that Aphrodite
had been born of the sea foam in an oyster. Thus this humble
mollusk was subsequently elevated to the status of a powerful
“aphrodisiac,” a word derived from Aphrodite’s name.
While there is no scientific evidence that oysters can turn
on desire, many forward-thinking Georgians would like to
rekindle the state’s love affair with the oyster.
“Oyster aquaculture will be huge for Georgia” is
Representative Jones’s prediction.
Tommy Barton is a retired editorial page editor for the Savannah
Morning News and a freelance writer in Savannah.
SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2018
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