Under a gray and overcast sky, Lee Foskey and his crew of oystermen stood tenuously on a large cluster of wild Georgia oysters as they foraged for the best ones.
Clad in thick gloves and armed with short lengths of rebar, the men plucked clumps of the blade-shaped shellfish from the marshes off McIntosh County’s virgin coast at low water.
Holding the rebar in one hand and the oysters in another, they broke the clusters apart with a rhythmic tapping of metal against shell, throwing the prime oysters in heavy-duty laundry baskets and tossing the remains over their shoulders back to the sea.
“Big, green tint to ‘em — dark green tint, fresh lookin’,” Foskey said, describing the choice oysters he was seeking. “Deep cup, and singles, if possible, but that’s very rare in Georgia.”
For 12 years, Foskey has worked with Townsend-based Sapelo Sea Farms harvesting wild oysters.
“All within five miles of here,” he said, waving his rebar over his shoulder to motion to the marshlands surrounding him.
Yet for all his experience, Foskey has never seen the method most other states use for growing and harvesting commercial oysters.
A DIFFERENT WAY
In other states, farmers can use systems of mesh bags filled with baby oysters and grow them to harvestable size in floating cages tethered to the bottoms of estuaries. The oysters can be mechanically sorted by size and age and re-bagged every few months to maximize profit and predictability. This method also produces the deep-cup, single oysters restaurant goers are accustomed to seeing on their plates.
That method remains illegal in Georgia. In the Empire State of the South, only wild oysters can be harvested by the state’s 17 “master collector permit” holders. This means most of the oysters from Georgia’s waters end up being used for backyard roasts and fetch less money at market than their competitors from states like Alabama, Florida, Virginia and the Carolinas. Restaurants don’t want Georgia’s wild oysters because of their clumpy look and razor-sharp shells.
Shellfish growers like Sapelo Sea Farm’s Charlie Phillips say Georgia needs to catch up with its neighbors and allow floating cages and other gear to be used, like in neighboring states.
“I’ve got more orders than I can fill,” Phillips said in his cluttered office back at the docks a week ago. “It’s hard to find pickers, and then you’re dealing with things like nor’easters, and low tides that are at night when you can’t pick. I’ll be lucky to fill half my orders this week.”
$5 MILLION BY 2022?
Phillips and other growers have recently found a champion for their cause. State Rep. Jeff Jones, a Brunswick Republican, has been on a mission over the past few months to craft legislation to legalize oyster aquaculture in Georgia. He plans to bring his proposal to the Gold Dome when the General Assembly’s next session starts in January.
Jones envisions a new industry on Georgia’s coast that could be worth more than $5 million by 2022, according to state experts. Today, Georgia’s oysters only account for about $250,000 of profit a year, Jones said.
“In the past couple of months, an incredible amount of progress has been made to change Georgia’s rules and regulations to allow oyster farming in Georgia and grow a commercially viable and profitable oyster industry,” Jones said in a statement. “By allowing and supporting oyster farming in Georgia, our state has the potential to create a multimillion dollar ‘Georgia Grown’ oyster industry in a few short years.”
There is precedent for what Jones is expecting. Virginia’s oyster industry was worth about $200,000 in 2004, but a decade later, after the state aggressively pushed the industry, oyster farmers are raking in around $30 million annually.
Shucking open this new industry won’t be without its challenges, however. A host of regulatory measures will need to be in place to safely deliver oysters to consumers, and there is no shortage of details that need to be hashed out.
To start that process, Jones invited stakeholders to a meeting Tuesday at the Coastal Regional Commission office in Darien. Representatives from the Georgia departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture were on hand, as well as shellfish growers, environmentalists and economic development officials.
Oysters are one of the most heavily regulated foods in the country. A myriad of state and federal rules manage oyster handling and sales, and people can become seriously ill if a bad batch of oysters makes it to the market.
That’s one of the concerns of Jill Andrews, chief of DNR’s Coastal Management Section. Speaking to stakeholders Tuesday, she laid out the challenges her department will have to overcome to help the oyster industry grow and change.
From testing water quality at one of DNR’s 82 monitoring sites to educating harvesters about best practices, it’s her office’s job to make sure oysters are picked and handled properly out on the water. Once they reach the docks, another state agency — the Department of Agriculture — picks up the oversight.
If Georgia’s oyster industry grows to as many as 50 oyster farmers over the next few years as Jones thinks it could, both state departments will need far more regulators to keep up with higher volumes of shellfish.
‘MEASURE TWICE, CUT ONCE’
Mark Williams, the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, said he and his department are committed to helping the oyster industry take off, but he wants to see it done in a safe and manageable fashion.
“Quite frankly, it will not be successful without all the stakeholders,” he said Tuesday. “This is a public resources, they’re farmed on public resources, and we’re going to have a lot of entities that have an interest in what’s going on. But we as an agency are committed to moving this forward. But we want to measure twice and cut once, as my grandfather used to say.”
If Jones is successful in changing the law to allow floating cages, the new method will mean farmers will need to buy oyster seed from somewhere. The seeds are baby oysters about 3 millimeters long that have been grown in a laboratory. Currently, it’s illegal to import seed from out of state, and the only oyster hatchery in Georgia is run by the University of Georgia on Skidaway Island. That hatchery was never meant to become a commercial endeavor, so Jones is hoping to change Georgia’s law to allow out-of-state seed to be imported.
Doug Haymans, director of DNR’s Coastal Resources Division, said there’s still a lot to work out concerning Jones’ proposed legislation, but the timing may be right.
“Oystering in Georgia is not a new thing,” he said. “If I go back to the codes I have in my office, I can go back to 1933. The department (of Natural Resources) is just over 100 years old, so we’ve had an oyster regulation — an oyster statute — for almost all of our 100 years.
“If you look at what was happening when our department was developed, it was when oysters were at their height, when the industry was going gangbusters. I look at 1933 as that watershed year when the legislature decided it needed to put some kind of rules in perspective.
“I can trace some of the regulations right into 1991, when most of the current regulations were put in place,” he said. “They are 100 years told, or nearly so, and it’s time to start looking at some of the regulations.”
What that updated legislation might look like is still under consideration. But Haymans said it would likely restructure the rules to give the Board of the Department of Natural Resources oversight of the oyster industry. Delegating responsibility to the board, rather than codifying specifics into law, would give the industry and DNR more flexibility to handle challenges as they arise.
Jones, who is seeking re-election Tuesday, hopes he’ll be around next session to see his initiative through.
“We’ve got ideal waters, producers that want to see how the regulatory issues unfold, and we’ve got distributers who are lined up and ready to participate in what could be a very exciting industry for McIntosh County, all six coastal counties and indeed the entire state of Georgia,” he said.