There are many steps ahead before Georgia could open up the coast for oyster cultivation, but that process continued Tuesday morning as the meeting of the House Rural Development Council concluded at the College of Coastal Georgia.
State Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, is still working on language for a bill he hopes will pass the General Assembly in the 2019 session.
“As this whole thing has begun to evolve, we’ve had contacts from a number of the … distributors throughout the state who are anxious to see us deliver quality, farm-raised oysters to the restaurant industry on a 12-month a year basis,” Jones said. “But, we’re going to need to bring the spat in from out of state. Quite frankly, there is not enough oyster hatchery facility or capacity currently in the state to be able to service what we believe will be a very good and strong industry.”
Jones said the state Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Resources Division is going to need to hire at least three new staffers to kick off the oyster cultivation process, but he said there is money already set aside that can be used for these jobs.
“So, we’ve got legislation in process, got the full support of (DNR), we’ve got funding lined up, and we have market demand that’s already been expressed by folks such as Inland Seafood, a big seafood distributor out of Atlanta,” Jones said. “All the elements of this are coming together in an incredibly smooth fashion. And so for me, I more or less stumbled into this because of all the work done by the various folks involved in the industry.
“Actually, it was a reporter from The Brunswick News that contacted me three or four months ago — whenever that was — doing an article about why oysters haven’t taken off in the state of Georgia. And that piqued my interest enough that I jumped into that process, and again, we brought it to where we are today.”
Jones said he’s looking at the proposal as a McIntosh County-centered initiative, and has a stakeholder meeting scheduled for Oct. 30 in McIntosh County, though he sees the project as impacting all the state’s coastal counties, and, with the distribution chain, throughout the state.
“McIntosh County, in the ‘20s and ‘30s, actually used to be a huge oyster producer in the state,” Jones said. “They harvested the oysters, the wild-grown oysters, and they were canned. I understand there are still remnants of some canneries still existing in McIntosh County that didn’t get quite cleaned up.
“But, they … over-harvested, and the taste of the consumers changed — people weren’t looking for canned oysters any longer. Our tastes are now more roasted and raw oysters. This is just a natural evolution of the demand by the marketplace to deliver oysters year-round.”
Mark Risse, director of the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, said not only is the potential there for oyster farming, but there’s also motivation from the federal government.
“Aquaculture presents one of our biggest opportunities for rural development at the federal level — both (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) are investing lots of money currently in developing U.S. aquaculture,” Risse said. “They want to try and correct the tremendous trade imbalance the United States has in seafood — 95 percent of the seafood we eat is imported from other countries, and there’s a huge federal effort to change that. We’ve got some success in these areas.”
He pointed out work done in the 1990s to bring clam seed into the state to facilitate clam farming. Risse said the hope is to attract commercial oyster hatcheries to Georgia that will supply growers in the years going forward.
“But, we have proven that this can work in Georgia, it is economical and people could derive a livelihood and keep living in some of our rural, coastal areas through this venture,” Risse said.
Charlie Phillips, owner of Sapelo Sea Farms, is one of the few that harvests wild-grown oysters, is involved in clam farming and is one of those looking to get into oyster farming, should legislation legalizing and regulating it pass the General Assembly. He said he’s an environmentalist and a businessman, and while some people think you can’t do both, he said you can and you should.
“Nobody has the tides that we have until you get to New England, nobody has the marshes that we have — we got, like, 30 percent of the marshes on the East Coast — we got a really good environment to grow stuff in,” Phillips said. “I tell people all the time, if you take care of your environment, you take care of your water quality, then your environment can take care of you and you can do stuff. You can have aquaculture, you can have clean water for recreational purposes, … (and) fishing.”
In other legislative news, Gov. Nathan Deal called the General Assembly to reconvene for a special emergency session Nov. 13 to deal with hurricane recovery. The legislature will also decide whether to approve a sales tax break for jet fuel, an issue that became fodder for the Republican gubernatorial nomination race earlier this year.
“Georgia was severely impacted by Hurricane Michael and many communities across our state sustained heavy financial losses,” Deal said in a statement. “In response, I will asked the General Assembly to take immediate action and lead the way in spurring rapid economic recovery for southwest Georgia communities.
“Our state budget also needs to be amended to ensure that we adequately cover our obligations.”