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An Oyster Is an Oyster Is an Oyster: Part 2

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In the first part of this article (found in our August/September Wildlife issue) I told you a story – a story about how, once upon a time, I didn’t like oysters. Until I tried Lowcountry oysters. Then in the article I explored the process of how these bivalves reproduce, oyster spat, and the steps that a farmer must take to ensure their survival along the way.

But what does it take to get these juvenile oysters all the way to the table? And how exactly does a person get into oyster farming? And who are our Lowcountry shell stars?Leftover oyster shells

Get to Know Local Oystermen

Frank Roberts, Lady’s Island Oysters

Frank’s family has lived in the Chesapeake area since the 1700s, and he remembers visiting his grandparents as a child and learning about oysters. “We didn’t farm them,” he said. “Oysters and crabs were just part of the lifestyle there.” Work brought him to  Connecticut, where he made his living as a police officer by night and a commercial fisherman by day. When he first moved to Beaufort a plan began formulating in his mind to make a business out of oyster farming. Why? “I don’t know. They’re just something I’m attracted to. I love growing them. I love eating them.” Frank Roberts 2

Moving to Beaufort the second time, he learned from an older local that the area had once had “some of the best single oysters around . . . and essentially, everyone ate them all.” When the man learned of Frank’s desire to grow single oysters, he told him, “If you can grow them you’ll sell them. . . . I guarantee it because Beaufort has got the greatest oysters.” And sure enough, he grows them – over 2 million a year – and they all sell.

The Youngs, May River Oyster Company

For as long as they’ve lived in the Bluffton area, Brad and Olivia Young have been passionate about the May River. Both of them had their own jobs, but neither of them thought about getting into the oyster business until later in life.

may river oyster coA man in the Bluffton area had been experimenting with raising oysters, but raising a young family at the time proved to be less than conducive to growing his business. Knowing the Youngs’ passion for the river and the environment, he asked them if they would consider taking over for him. And they did. Brad and Olivia run the farm with their two nephews, Austin and Andrew. But they didn’t stop there. “We wanted to focus on providing really good oysters, but we also wanted to educate the community about how our farm impacts the river and the community.” So they reached out to Chris Shoemaker at May River Excursions about giving farm tours, and a partnership was born. From the description on their website, you can take a “1.5 hour tour . . . down the majestic May River where you will learn about the ecosystem of the salt water marsh where the oyster plays a central role.”

Andrew Carmines, Shell Ring Oyster Company

Andrew is no stranger to the ocean, the area, or even oysters. The Carmines family has owned Hudson’s Seafood on the Docks on Hilton Head Island since the 1970’s, and the foundation that the restaurant was built upon is none other than a giant bed of oyster shells. In addition to his position as General Manager at Hudson’s, Andrew, along with his friend and colleague Rob Rowe, also spearhead a soft-shell crab shedding every springtime in a packinghouse at the ring oyster co

With a flow-through water system that helps the crabs molt, they can take the crabs immediately from the packinghouse to the table. The crab shelling lasts only for a month – albeit an “arduous month, where you end up delirious and silly,” according to Andrew. Carmines said that Rob asked him, “Well, what are we going to do when we’re not watching crabs for 24 hours a day?” And that’s when they got the idea of oyster farming.

Using the discarded oyster shells from the restaurant, they dump them into the river to provide the hard substrate needed for the oyster seed to attach themselves and continue the growing process. The oysters they harvest go straight to the tables at Hudson’s, and Andrew enjoys educating customers about this unique sea farm-to-table experience.

Cash Crop

As stated in the previous article, Frank Roberts is acknowledged as the pioneer in these parts for responsible oyster farming. Right now, his is one of the only companies in this part of the Lowcountry that runs a hatchery. Farms like May River Oysters buy seed – or baby oysters – from companies like Frank’s and cultivate them until they are ready to be delivered to local restaurants (or in Andrew’s case, served at his own restaurant). Shell Ring Oyster Company currently gets their seed from Bill Cox on Yonges Island.Young oysters

A batch of oysters should ready at the same time, so the oysters are consistently measured via sieves and put in different silos based on their size. When juveniles in a batch grow enough, they are moved to buoyed cages and set throughout the marshes and rivers to finish maturing. The length of time it takes for the oysters to move from the hatchery to the river is about two months.

A man had once asked Frank, “How long does it take from this time until they’re sitting in front of me and my bottle of beer?” That prompted the start to what could be a good limerick, “from here to beer in about a year.”

When the oysters reach around 2.75 inches, they can be sold to restaurants. There’s a lot more to the process than that, but that’s the short-and-sweet of it. For those interested in learning more, I’d recommend speaking to any of our local oyster farmers.

Anything but Lazy

While the reproductive and culinary aspects of oysters are magical, what’s even more impressive, in my opinion, is the magic that happens while the oysters are still in the rivers.

Young oysters 2If you have seen Finding Nemo, remember the part where Nemo has been captured and put in a fishtank, and the fish are trying to escape by making the tank dirty enough so the dentist has to take them out to clean it? In the movie, they jam the water filter, and the tank becomes cloudy and scummy, making it difficult for some of the fish to function. Oysters are a natural water filter.

According to Trent Austin and the oyster experts at South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources, “an adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day in areas where oysters are subtidal.” You can imagine the impact on the environment. Even in the Lowcountry, where oysters are intertidal, meaning that they are only under water for part of the day, one oyster will still filter up to 25 gallons per day.

Just as trees take in carbon dioxide and put out oxygen, oysters filter pollutants and algae out of the water, returning it to the rivers, marshes, and oceans better than when they sucked it in. The way that DNR puts it is this: “Once they sort their food – the microscopic phytoplankton (algae) – out of the water they deposit pseudofeces on the creek bed. This sediment deposition is rich with nutrients and perfect for growing marsh grass and providing food for other organisms.”Shell Ring Oyster Co oyster cages

Olivia Young was the one who first introduced me to the fish tank analogy, and it was she who impressed upon me the enormity of just how important these bivalves are to the marshes, rivers, and oceans. “Oysters are the filters of the saltwater ecosystem,” she said. “If oysters are over-harvested, the entire ecosystem goes down.” While humans are still one of the biggest predators of oysters, “some other common predators of oysters,” according to DNR, “are the American oystercatcher [a shorebird], raccoons, oyster drills [a kind of predatory sea snail], mud crabs, and blue crabs.”

I hope you enjoyed Part 2. Pick up next issue when I explore the culinary aspect of oysters!

By Hannah Seigworth

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