Breaking the Shell of the Bicuspid Battle in the New South
By Jonathan Moody
Photography By Lindy Moody
The Deep South’s history is inextricably intertwined with food products that are harvested from the lands surrounding the localities of its (mostly) generational residents. Growing up, folks have eaten collard greens, rutabagas, turnips, corn, and other easily accessible and sustainable produce that flow, if not directly from farmer to consumer, through two or three hands rather than from big box grocers. The same is true for harvestable wildlife whether it be from the sea or the land.
One thing that we always got fresh as Low Country locals was the Meat from the Mud—the pearlescent pocket of perfection that always popped up when the mornings started to get cool and we spent our Saturday evenings around a steam table: oysters. We always ate them steamed. Always. And to be frank, it was until I was in college that I even saw a raw oyster because we always ate cluster oysters from the rivers that we used for swimming during the summer.
It was true, after all, that only cold-water oysters were right for raw bars. At least that is what is often said about the oysters ‘round these parts:” They just ain’t right for eatin’ raw.” While partly true, it may not be for the reasons that you think. One problem with cluster oysters is the difficulty of splitting them into separate single oysters that would make them a viable option for an on-the-half shell scenario. Another and more glaring issue is the way that the oyster grows.
Because the mud in our marshes is so soft, the oyster doesn’t have many natural structures on which to grow, so they grow on top of one another from below the mudline in the intertidal zone in what we always called “oyster beds”. In addition to having a brittle shell making it hard to shuck, our cluster oyster (being intertidal) carries with it a much higher chance for what most people know as shellfish sickness—Vibrio sickness. Because oysters are filter feeders, the bacteria from the waters that they filter can contaminate the meat of the shellfish and cause symptoms in humans—some as mundane as diarrhea and vomiting to much more serious complications like organ failure and death. Vibrio grows best in warmth and much more slowly as its habitat approaches 55°F; the waters around Georgia and South Carolina provide the perfect breeding ground for them. Periods of radiant heat when the oyster is exposed to raw sunlight combined with the ambient temperatures when they are submerged provide incredible conditions for Vibrio formation in the oysters—especially in warmer temperature months. That Vibrio sickness is the pillar upon which the unwritten rule of only eating wild-harvested oysters in months with an “r” is built.
Oysters do not, however, have to grow in a cluster. Once the seed oyster (free-swimming larvae) attaches to something, then called “spat”, it can grow individually. To initiate this process, oyster farmers grind up oyster shells into sand-like texture and place it into tanks with the tiny seed oysters. Once attached, the oyster will always be its own shelled creature. Our wild oysters go through the same process, but they attach to the shells of existing clusters of oysters instead of grain-sized bits of oyster shells.
Lowcountry oyster farmers are now putting our locally unique-tasting oysters on raw menus by using the individual-growing method. Traditionally, farmers would allow those single oysters to grow in
cages on the bottom of a river or sound. Lady’s Island Oyster, Inc., on Lady’s Island, South Carolina imparted a floating cage method to keep the oysters that they grow constantly submerged to make sure that the oysters don’t have the time to bake in the hot sun and incubate vibrio. The oysters are in large cages that allow the growing oysters to sit just below the surface of the water and are flipped to keep the oysters clean from biofouling that grow on them when they are sedentary. The farmer can also fill the floats with water to sink the cages in the event of a hurricane.
When Lady’s Island Oyster was founded in 2007, founder Frank Roberts was freshly retired from a career in law enforcement that budded out of his time in the Marines. At the time, most oyster farmers were using 2mm seed from hatcheries in Virginia to grow their briny bivalves. However, in April 2014, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources placed a moratorium on seed imports from anywhere north of South Carolina to prevent disease transfer, forcing him to decide if he wanted to grow single oysters bad enough, he would have to do it with a hatchery. He knew a bright young lady named Julie Davis from her work with SeaGrant and knew that her background in oystering and Masters Degree in Shellfish from Auburn University would give her the knowledge to help him start a hatchery of his own.
The two instantly fell in working together like two halves of a mollusk shell.
What you see now isn’t exactly how it all started, though. The project came together “all out of necessity” as Davis puts it, being piecemealed together over many years to the current outfit that they run today. “It’s hard to get a loan from a bank as an established type of farming—let alone for aquaculture that is either a new word or a dirty word for a bank,” she said, “so everything you see here is pay-as-you-go.” But with a dream and some hard work, the two paved the way by trial-and-error for other floating farm oyster farmers in the marshy South. The two pride themselves on being a part of a community that bands together for the good of mariculture as a whole, educating lawmakers and the public from a hands-on viewpoint of what works, what doesn’t, what’s positive, and what isn’t.
At this point, legislative red tape presents the biggest problem to Low Country mariculture. State representatives have expressed concerns about the floating cages creating problematic eyesores and dangerous impediments on the rivers traversed heavily by recreational boaters. Oyster farmers and wild harvesters alike both respond with a blanket and inarguable counterpoint: “BUT! WE ARE RUNNING OUT OF OYSTERS!”
Running out? How could that possibly be?
In 1986, there was a massive dying off of Low Country oysters due to an incredibly hot and dry summer, which contributed to stressing the oysters so much that a disease called Dermo caused a critical amount of shellfish mortality and closed the doors of nearly all of the shuck houses that made the Low Country famous.1 Because the shuck houses were gone, the oyster population began to bounce back, but with little in place to protect the waters from overfishing, we quite literally ate all of the oysters and had virtually nothing in place to help the population to revitalize.
Oyster shell “buyback” programs initiated by governmental entities equated to little more than a gold star on your homework assignment. While restaurants and farmers saw it was their eco-responsibility to participate, the majority of oysters (eaten at backyard oyster roasts) saw their final resting places as driveway gravel or at local landfills. Lady’s Island Oyster Company’s bushels shot from $35 per bushel in 2013 to a staggering $70 per bushel in 2020. Prices in Charleston climbed to $90 per bushel in some places.
If there’s one silver lining in the COVID madness that the world has endured, Roberts told me that “It couldn’t have happened at a more critical time. If it wasn’t for COVID, there would have been riots over the lack of oysters last fall. It was a political year—a lot of oyster roasts would be happening, fundraisers, political events revolving around oysters—and they would have realized that there are no oysters.”
“How’d you put it?” Roberts joked with Davis.
“You’d have to have a hot dog roast to have the money to buy the oysters for your oyster roast fundraiser.” she replied.
It may not be the final solution to a dying wild oyster population, but farming is a definitely a start. “Oyster farming is restorative. It enhances the environment.” Reynolds said. In addition to enhancing the environment around them, oyster farms stand to make coastal economies flourish. One obvious spike in economic benefit is creating jobs for the community in which they are situated. Another and seemingly less direct advantage to local economy is the effect it can have on fishing tourism.
Small fish use oyster reefs to hide from predators, and predators know it. Redfish, trout, snook, and other prized inshore predators are the Moby Dicks of Ahab anglers. The problem is that with the declining wild oyster population, the population of those scared bait fish declines with it (and the trophy fish with it). If we supplement our wild oyster population with farmed oysters, it may help the resurgence of our dwindling wilds. Also, the shells that are saved from restaurants supporting those shell “buyback” programs can be planted into a wild habitat, allowing new colonies of oysters to flourish for generations. Support of oyster farming will have net positive wide-sweeping effects on the entire Low Country, the extent of which we couldn’t fully predict at the current juncture.
Unfortunately, Georgia is miles behind South Carolina in terms of mariculture. Until 2019 and a controversial Bill put forth by Georgia State Representatives, oyster farming was against the law in the Peach State. When the old law was written, it allowed for wild harvesting in very specific areas. Presumedly because oyster farming is very gear intensive and would potentially have a much higher eco-footprint in the waterways, Georgia said it was a no-go.
In 2019, however, the new law allowed for licensing and permits for farming, but the regulations were strict and the permits given out weren’t plentiful. There were only two Georgia farmers attempting the new way of doing things—Ernest McIntosh, Sr. & Ernest McIntosh, Jr. Both McIntosh men come from—you guessed it—McIntosh County around Harris Neck, a pearl of the state. Unfortunately for the
McIntosh outfit and oyster lovers like me, their first harvesting season (since it takes a full calendar year from spat to mature) was during COVID, and not many got to see their half-shelled delicacies on menus.
Georgia does have quite an incredible resource for oyster research on Skidaway Island that may help lawmakers do their research on data gathered by scientists employed by the University of Georgia. Tom Bliss, Director of UGA’s Shellfish Research Laboratory across Diamond Causeway, told me that the main goal of the lab in the ‘80s and ‘90s was to develop shellfish aquaculture. Because clams had skirted by the old regulations due to the lack of intensive gear required to farm them, the lab focused mainly on clam-based aquaculture. Once the clam aquaculture was established, people started wanting the lab to get more into oyster seed research.
Those pesky regulations peeked their head again, though, and it turned out Bliss ran into the same red tape as many oyster farmers in South Carolina had. “It was always difficult for us to get seed in to do research.” he told me. “We had individuals wanting to get into oyster aquaculture, wanting us to look at it, do more with it, but it was always difficult to get seed in.” So, what did the lab do? The same thing Roberts did—they started a hatchery.
Bliss told me, “The whole idea...was to establish a hatchery here so that we could start producing seed, start conducting research in relationship with the growers that had leases at the time, and start doing research to look at the feasibility of oyster aquaculture here.” When the DNR gave funding for the hatchery, they wanted proof of concept to see what problems oyster aquaculture may present for when they began to make rules and regulations around it. In addition to studying the oyster itself, the lab does field studies with full farming gear, so its applicable to the oyster agriculture of the area.
When lawmakers began to put the idea of the 2019 law into action in the legislature, they created a shellfish advisory panel that used technical knowledge gained through the lab to make informed decisions about what the Bill needed to accomplish. “It was a panel that the State established with current growers, some people in the restaurant business, some that were in distribution...that worked hand-in-hand with a coastal legislator, Jesse Petrea, who [submitted] the Bill in the House.” Bliss told me.
However good it may seem on its face, the passing of the Bill and its subsequent signing into law by Governor Brian Kemp could act as a poisoned chalice to the industry. Specifically, the cautionary measures of forcing Georgia DNR-approved hatcheries to provide all of the oyster seed may end up being another layer of marsh mud for the farmers to traverse. It also lays out a qualified farmer lottery system for designating who gets the licenses to do the farming, which puts career farmers’ livelihoods into the hands of a powerballesque game of chance.
While there is light at the end of the tunnel for the future of the Low Country’s single oyster commercial sellers, the road will be long until then. As with all legislative change, progress in the area of shellfish mariculture will likely move more slowly than molasses in January. In the meantime, if you enjoy eating oysters like I do—get educated, get informed, and get involved. Don’t just back this on my word, but the budding mariculture of your area needs you, and the pioneers of the cages (or the ones I’ve talked to) are happy to have you come out, take a tour, and get to know the lands, waters, and people that are bringing sustenance to your table. And if you see a locally grown oyster on a raw bar menu, give it a go. My granny can have that “they just ain’t right for eatin’ raw” nonsense to herself