Georgia Oyster Industry Shucks Wild-Grown Strategy; Discovers Pearl of Great Price in Aquaculture

John Tabellione

Monday, January 14th, 2019

In a few years, Georgia oysters may earn a spot next to Georgia peaches, peanuts, Vidalia onions, and shrimp as one of the state’s official foods and crops.

The science of aquaculture for cultivating and harvesting oysters adds another aspect to the term “farm-to-table,” as the state oyster farming industry foresees a significant revivification of what was once a thriving business during the early decades of the previous century. Fast-forwarding to today, after years of environmental mismanagement practices, labor issues, and changing consumer preferences regarding wild-grown oysters, the industry is now receiving widespread support from state government officials, environmentalists, academic researchers, restaurateurs, and consumers. The driving forces behind that support: potential for vigorous job growth opportunities in poorer counties; strong market demand for unique products; and, improved coastal ecological conditions.

Proposed Regulatory Legislation Imminent

Proposed legislation in the upcoming 2019 General Assembly session of the Georgia House of Representatives by Brunswick member, Jeff Jones of District 167 (McIntosh, North Glynn and Long counties), calls for training, regulations, best practices, safety, environmental, and leasing procedures for the implementation of oyster farming along the 100-plus miles of coastal Georgia’s ocean ways, marshland and tributaries. The bill is modeled after similar successful laws by neighboring oyster-producing states, such as Florida, Virginia and the Carolinas. 

Jones believes his proposal has caught the attention of incoming Governor Brian Kemp. Also, he said he has a strong commitment from House Speaker David Ralston (D4-Blue Ridge) and other legislators in both houses, as well as cooperation from key state and federal agencies. In October, Jones held a stakeholder meeting in McIntosh County and drew support from the McIntosh Industrial Development Authority, as well.

Among the agencies that need to buy into the legislation include the Department of Natural Resources (Coastal Resources Division -CRD); the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; U.S Department of Agriculture; and, the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

One of the key elements of Jones’ legislation is to legalize the import of “spat”—baby oysters—from other states. When these spat grow to proper size, shellfish farmers cultivate them to maturity as single oysters. In the past Georgia’s crop was mostly clumps, and the product was canned or used for oyster roasts, but the single oysters are what the marketplace currently prefers. 

Jones noted, “Commercial oyster hatchery facilities are needed in the state to be able to service what we believe will be a very good and strong industry.” Until we have commercial hatcheries, we need to be able to bring spat to Georgia to support oyster  farming. On a related note covered by Jones’ bill, in other states, farmers are allowed to use mesh bags filled with spat and grow them to harvestable size in floating cages. The same would hold true here.

Jones envisions the Georgia coast oyster business to be worth over $5 million annually by 2022 compared to $250,000 currently. Jones lists three major objectives with his initiative: making aquaculture of oysters and the import of spat legal, as well as bringing highly desirable Georgia grown oysters safely into the consumer market. The greatest challenge, says Jones, will be the oversight and procedures to meet regulations, and CRD has to learn how to manage the farmers and ancillary sellers in the distribution chain.

UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant 

Mark Risse, Director, UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, noted that his organization has been at the forefront of reviving the oyster industry, researching and experimenting with ways to increase oyster aquaculture production at its hatchery on Skidaway Island. The organization has trained potential oyster farmers on how to grow single oysters on their leases in Georgia waters. They have also written a manual for operators wanting to open a commercial hatchery. Marine Extension and Georgia Sea grant is currently managing the only oyster hatchery providing oyster spat in the state of Georgia. The operation is not meant to be a commercial endeavor, but rather the goal is to conduct research and develop growing techniques to help to attract a commercial hatchery and other businesses related to oyster production to the area, which would provide jobs and greater economic development opportunities along the coast.

At full capacity, the hatchery has the capacity to produce 15 million spat, with an estimated harvest value of $3.75 million to $5.2 million.

UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant recently held the third annual Oyster Roast for a Reason event in November at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium. The oyster roast is designed to raise awareness about having an oyster aquaculture industry in Georgia and to highlight efforts to grow it. Sponsors of the event include  restaurants and seafood distributors, from Savannah to Atlanta, and they help spread the word to the broader community by sharing information about Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s efforts with customers, colleagues and partners. 

In addition to the oyster roast, Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is offering special Coastal Stewards workshops that focus oyster aquaculture and emphasize the environmental benefits of oysters. One adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water per day naturally to further improve water quality off the Georgia Coast. Participants of the workshop visited the Shellfish Research Lab on Skidaway Island to tour the hatchery and learn about oyster ecology and farming oysters. They also visited to wild oyster reefs and participated in hands-on lab activities designed to teach stewardship of Georgia oysters.

Industry Associations, Restaurants/Oyster Bars, Consumer Tastes

Consumers prefer roasted and raw oysters, and Georgia products have a unique taste. According to Bryan Rackley, partner of Kimball House in Decatur, Georgia, and Watchman’s Seafood and Spirits in Atlanta, sophisticated consumers desire a wide variety of choices. The tastes “vary wildly” from those of the West Coast, or New England and to the Southeast, where Georgia’s environment helps to produce a “salty/sweet” flavor. However, he added, restaurants here didn’t want Georgia’s wild oysters because of their clumpy look and razor-sharp shells. Conversely, potential opportunities in those above-mentioned locales present additional markets for Georgia-grown oysters.

Distributors throughout Georgia are anxious to see and deliver quality, farm-raised, easy-to-open single oysters to the upscale restaurant industry on a 12-month a year basis. Currently, wild-grown oysters are typically sold only eight to nine months a year. 

As a Founding Board Member of Oyster South, an industry association of oyster producing states in the Southeast, Rackley noted that the group is planning to hold its third annual Symposium in February. The event will convene a network of farmers who bounce around ideas and techniques, welcome and comfort new members to the industry, and hash out problems. “This year, for example, the big issue has been hurricanes.” There are always different opinions about what to do. What kind of hurricane preparation is the best?” In addition, State Extension agents sit on Oyster South’s Advisory Board. Lastly, “It’s a little be of a social community,” he added.

“What we’re fighting for is successful oyster farms all across the Southeast. The reason for that is really two-fold: the environmental side of it is really compelling because oystering in general has such a positive ecological impact on the areas where they’re being produced. Second of all, it’s an easy way of building industry in an area that doesn’t see a lot of economic success. It’s job growth and environmentally friendly farming.”

Rackley concluded saying, “The big question, big challenge going forward at this point is to figure out what the steps are, what the process is for making this happen legally. Whose minds do we have to change? Who’s standing in the way? For me it’s just like we’re at the beginning of that. Look forward to having more conversations with Jeff (Jones) on what it is that I, as a restaurant owner, and we, as members of a supportive non-profit, can do to affect these changes.”

About John Tabellione

John Tabellione is an award-winning, professional business writer, complemented by over twenty-five years of strategic communication responsibilities as a Marketing, New Business Development and National Account Sales Executive in consumer goods and commercial industries. 

Experience with Fortune 500 companies, as well as with smaller firms and non-profits, encompassing a variety of products, including those of Georgia-Pacific, Kimberly-Clark and Stanley Works. 

John has a B.A. in English from Fairfield University and an MBA in Marketing from the University of Hartford. In addition, he has studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute at Syracuse University, and Italian language and culture at Kennesaw State University.