By Kelly Simmons
UGA Marine Extension is poised to launch the state’s first oyster hatchery, bringing the popular shellfish back to the Georgia coast after more than 50 years, and diversifying the state’s aquaculture industry.
The shellfish research lab on Skidaway Island began piloting oyster growth last year, using funding from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to give wild spat—oyster seed—and advice to aquaculturists in the area who have DNR approval to farm and harvest in specific areas along the coastal rivers and tributaries. DNR funding also paid to outfit part of the shellfish laboratory to be used as a hatchery to hire a hatchery manager.
“We hope eventually to attract a commercial hatchery to supply large amounts of seed,” said Thomas Bliss, director of the Marine Extension Shellfish Research Laboratory on Skidaway Island. “We can focus here on research.”
So far, 10 growers have cultivated the seedlings, protected in mesh bags on racks in shallow water. The first full size single shell oysters are expected to be ready for harvest this fall.
By summer, some were already 1.75 inches long, about a quarter inch smaller than the legal size for commercial harvesting in Georgia, said Bliss. The survival rate was high—about 99 percent had survived so far.
John Pelli, who owns the Savannah Clam Co., was among the local aquaculturists who agreed to try raising oysters. On a windy but sunny day in March, he was on his skiff, moving his mesh bags of shells from one location to another. He hopes to produce about 300,000 oysters a year to supply retailers locally and across the state.
In the early 1900s, Georgia was the largest wild oyster producer in the country, harvesting more than eight million pounds of oyster meat in 1908. By the 1940s and 1950s, however, production declined significantly. In the 1960s, canneries built to process the native oysters had closed.
In the 1980s, marine extension again began to explore opportunities in aquaculture. Clams, which are easier to grow, were first. In 2013, Georgia clammers harvested more than 105,000 tons of clams, up from 54,000 tons just five years earlier and 4.2 tons in 1993.
Clams are much easier to grow because you can buy seed from other states. Georgia doesn’t allow oyster spat from outside the state because it could contain disease.
To grow the spat, Bliss and hatchery manager Justin Manley have to recreate the natural spawning process of oysters inside tanks of water. Once the larvae is formed it attaches to a small piece of shell in the tank. The baby oysters, called spat, can be transplanted to other areas to grow into adults. They may be harvested when they are two inches long.
This year, Bliss says they’ll produce about 100,000 to 200,000 seeds, or spat. By 2020, he hopes that will increase to five to eight million.
The payoff would be worth it. The 100,000-500,00 oysters grown in 2015 have an estimated dock value of $75,000. Five to eight million would bring in about $1.6 million.
“Everybody’s crazy about single oysters,” Pelli said. “People are willing to pay good money for them.”