Georgia’s oysters are prized for their intensely salty flavor, but you won’t often find them served on the half shell. That’s because oysters don’t like to be by themselves here. Instead, they clump together, making them perfect for traditional oyster roasts but not so suitable for the restaurant market.
But now, the state’s first oyster hatchery is looking to change that.
Researchers at the UGA Shellfish Research Lab on Skidaway have coaxed wild oysters into spawning, then raised the resulting babies in the protective environment of the hatchery, keeping predators out and a steady stream of food in. They’re handing out about 200,000 or so spat, as the young oysters are called, to 10 oyster farmers from Chatham to Camden counties to jump-start the lucrative single-oyster market.
Getting that same great Georgia taste in an oyster you don’t have to chip away from its buddies has long been a goal of the local oyster farming industry.
To understand why oysters tend to clump here, picture the inter-tidal zone they prefer, said Tom Bliss, director of the shellfish lab, which is part of Marine Extension. In Georgia, that zone is mostly mud.
“They can’t settle on the mud because they’ll just get buried and die,” Bliss said. “So they settle on other oysters because they figure if an oyster’s living and doing well, then so can they. Once there’s a foothold they all start growing on top of one another.”
A hatchery circumvents this muddy pile up by first carefully growing out the oysters to the size of a pinky nail.
Inside the hatchery on the campus of Skidaway Institute water flows through tanks where oysters have been growing since September, Bliss plucks one out to show it off. It’s a white speck on his palm.
Farmers have already begun setting out these small oysters in their estuary lease sites in heavy mesh bags, up to 1,000 oysters per bag. As the tide rolls over the oysters, it provides these filter feeders with all they can eat.
Farmers tend the bags, shaking them and cleaning them — even power washing the shells — to keep the oysters from clumping inside. As the oysters grow, they sort them, aiming for about 250 adults in a bag.
In return for the spat and some supplies, the growers will share their experiences and data with scientists. Additionally, extension specialists will connect growers with seafood distribution companies to increase awareness of the Georgia single oyster.
“Restaurants like to have a consistent oyster and know they’re getting the same size that’s easy to serve on the half-shell. These oysters here can sell anywhere from 35 cents to 80 cents,” Bliss said, indicating the palm-sized beauty in his hand.
In the early 1900s, Georgia led the nation in oyster production, annually harvesting eight million pounds of oyster meat, primarily for the canning industry. By the 1940s, the industry was in decline due to over harvesting and decreasing demand for canned oysters. The last shucking houses in coastal Georgia closed in the 1960s. Harvested oysters now are primarily sold in clumps for private roasts.
The hatchery offers a way to expand the value of the state’s oyster production.
Its expected production is five million to six million baby oysters annually by 2018, which, after accounting for natural losses, could be worth more than $1.6 million to farmers.
Bliss and his team drew on expertise from hatcheries in Florida and Alabama, then tweaked their processes to work here.
“When you gets to the nuts and bolts of how to do things, everybody said you have to work with your water because everybody’s water is different,” Bliss said.
They also used hatchery manager Justin Manley’s experience farming single oysters from spat he collected in the wild when he had his own business, Spat King Oysters. That method worked but proved expensive. It costs about $12 to grow 1,000 spat in the hatchery. The time and energy expended on catching wild spat bumped up Manley’s cost to about $25 per thousand.
Funded through 2016 by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Management Program, the hatchery emerged from a collaborative effort between UGA Marine Extension specialists, resource managers with the DNR, the Georgia Department of Agriculture and the Georgia Shellfish Growers Association.
Mark Risse, director of UGA Marine Extension, expressed pride in the hatchery’s efforts to date.
“We hope to grow the oyster industry and allow farmers to produce oysters in a faster, more cost-effective way.”
Bliss plans to keep running a hatchery after the grant ends but hopes a commercial venture will assume the bulk of future production.
Georgia’s oyster season typically runs from October through May. (So forget the old saw about months with an ‘R.”) The hatchery babies should be big enough to eat by about this time next year.
Bliss, who prefers his oysters raw, is looking forward to it.
“The demand for good oysters just keeps going up,” Bliss said.
UGA Marine Extension
The UGA Shellfish Research Laboratory, a branch of UGA Marine Extension, is working to develop a sustainable oyster aquaculture industry in Georgia. As a unit of the Office of Public Service and Outreach at the University of Georgia, Marine Extension helps improve public resource policy, encourage far-sighted economic and fisheries decisions, anticipate vulnerabilities to change and educate citizens to be wise stewards of the coastal environment.
For more information, visit marex.uga.edu.