We hate to see Coastal Georgia missing out on an industry that could potentially provide jobs and a steady supply of tasty bites to eat in restaurants everywhere.
After asking everyone from regulators to seafood company owners to shellfish farmers recently why Georgia’s commercial oyster farming has never taken off, it seems there is an opportunity just waiting to be seized.
In states to our north and south and along the gulf coast, 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. In Virginia, a once fledgling $200,000 oyster industry has grown to a $30 million endeavor in about a decade thanks to the state aggressively shepherding growers into the business.
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 have to stick solely to the clumps of oysters that grow naturally in our local waters. Those clumped oysters are fantastic, don’t get us wrong. They are great for backyard oyster roasts and are no doubt a popular item during the right time of year, when water temperatures are cool enough for them to grow disease free.
But to truly have an industry that makes real money for real people, Georgia needs a commercial oyster seed hatchery. Currently, the University of Georgia operates a hatchery on Skidaway Island, but it was never meant to take the place of free enterprise. Potential oyster farmers will also need to be able to use the cage and mesh bag system to produce the right kind of marketable oysters.
The oyster hatchery run by the University of Georgia on Skidaway Island could produce 15 million seeds by 2022. The shellfish hatchery has provided 10 growers with the seed and cage equipment to collect data about how the oysters grow in our waters. From those, 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 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 commericial oyster hatchery springs up in state, our oyster business will remain a very small and limited endeavor.
We understand that to get there, plenty of work needs to be done. A regulatory system must be in place to ensure oysters are safe for human consumption. At the same time, our 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. But we don’t have to re-invent the entire process. Other states, including South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida to name a few have already done it. It is time we follow suit.
We already know how popular Wild Georgia Shrimp are. Why not take the steps to make Georgia grown oysters a delicacy for all to enjoy.
We hope state Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, indeed does bring the topic up under the Gold Dome at the capitol in the next session as he said he planned to do. It may take a while, but it is time to get things moving in the right direction.
Georgia oysters could very well become the next “Georgia Grown.”