It could soon be legal to harvest oysters in Georgia—but why is the proposed law so murky?

An oyster expert explains

Harvesting Georgia oysters legislation
A wild oyster in McIntosh County, Georgia

Photograph by André Gallant

Georgia’s oyster industry is primed for a comeback. Over the past five years, shellfishermen, scientists, and environmentalists have collaborated on the best way to reintroduce—after decades of dormancy—a sustainable and thriving oyster economy. Such oysters hardly could be able to be hatched fast enough to feed the hunger of diners across the state; restaurants are prepared to order bushels upon bushels of the bivalves.

So what’s the problem?

Currently, it’s not legal to grow oysters in Georgia. That day should arrive soon, though, following legislation that’s advancing under the Gold Dome. The nearly identical House Bill 501 and Senate Bill 182 recently passed their respective chambers—which bodes well for passage of legislation. But the regulations in the bills—which are intended to usher in a new oyster era—may stifle rather than kickstart the resurgence.

A number of powerful groups stand behind the bills, including the Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division (CRD), which oversees the shellfish industry and authored the legislation. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce is on board as well.

“We are trying to do something that other states have done and that we believe could be great for Georgia and for some of our coastal counties,” state Rep. Jeff Petrea, R-Savannah, sponsor of HB 501, said during a House Game, Fish, and Parks Committee meeting.

Other supporters, including ones from the marine science community, say any law is better than no law—that whatever the flaws and uncertainties, those issues can and should be fixed later.

Then there’s the faction that would prefer no law at all compared to what’s proposed. The oystermen I spoke with, including Charlie Phillips of Sapelo Sea Farms and others who asked not to be quoted for fear of retribution from future regulators, fall into this category.

I’ve spent the past five years researching Georgia’s developing oyster industry. I even wrote a book about it: A High Low Tide: The Revival of a Southern Oyster. On the one hand, I wonder what took so long for the bills to materialize, and it’s a relief that the future of aquaculture is finally up for discussion by lawmakers. On the other, the bills raise many concerns—including putting Georgia oystermen at a disadvantage compared to those in other states and compared to deeper-pocketed local competitors. Those factors, coupled with the vague wording in some of the proposed regulations, have made oyster enthusiasts uneasy.

I worry that this uncertainty isn’t likely to breed many oysters.

“The CRD [Coastal Resources Division] could really be the hero of this whole affair if they would just provide some clarity and explanation,” says Bryan Rackley, co-owner of renowned oyster-forward restaurants Kimball House and Watchman’s Seafood and Spirits, and member of Oyster South, an advocacy group for oyster aquaculture in the Southeast. “There’s still too many critical unanswered questions.”

The management of aquaculture is newly chartered water for Southern states. Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida have crafted their rules only in the past decade, with edits still on the way. Their trials and errors should guide Georgia as it sets its course. But the guidelines that helped make aquaculture so successful along the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico can’t be found—at least not definitively—in Georgia’s legislation.

One potential problem with the bills is quite technical. Oyster farmers require specific gear to grow their crop. The bills do say gear can be used in the water, but the specifics are hazy—and specifics are important. Georgia’s oystermen are desperate to be able to use what’s called “floating gear,” which allows them to work in a way that’s less dependent on the tides and produces a higher-quality oyster. But there’s no direct acknowledgement in the legislation of this need. (The bills would allow the state to lease subtidal waterbottoms, which is good news. Subtidal bottoms are the part of the waterways where floating gear would be used to an oyster farmer’s benefit.)

Harvesting Georgia oysters legislation
Hatchery-grown oysters spread out on a dock by the Skidaway River

Photograph by André Gallant

Oystermen also are frustrated by language that does not authorize the summer harvest of oysters. From May until October, when waters are warm, oysters are more likely to harbor Vibrio bacteria, which can sicken children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Despite these serious public health concerns, oysters are harvested elsewhere in the South and safely served during the summer season, thanks in part to refrigeration and quick transportation. Atlanta restaurants already serve oysters from across the South all summer long, so why not let them serve Georgia-grown ones? Do we trust the methods of Louisiana, the Carolinas, and Florida more than we would our own?

Without summer harvest, oyster farmers say it will be difficult to thrive. Who will invest in a business that draws no income for five months? The way the bills are currently worded, there’s potential for summer harvests, but, again, the language is vague.

Environmental groups such as the Altamaha Riverkeeper and One Hundred Miles have questioned how the legislation would allow the state to determine who has the right to farm oysters. Under the bills, a blind “lottery” would be used to assign rights to oyster leases; sealed applications would be submitted, yet the CRD would determine who wins the lottery in the end, choosing “the bidder it considers most advantageous to the state.” It’s possible that it could cost thousands of dollars just to apply to the lottery, without the promise of being awarded the lease. According to the legislation, applicants would be required to have already invested in commercial or agricultural acreage on which they’ve constructed coolers and a packing house.

Regulators typically utilize lotteries when the resource—an overfished species like red snapper, for example—is limited. Oysters are farmed from seed produced in a lab; it’s more akin to agriculture than fishing. The only limit to this resource is space. Our marsh lands are limited, yes, but I’ve heard estimates from aquaculture specialists that 100 small oyster farms would take up one percent of wetland acreage. We currently have one provisional oyster farm in the state. There’s much room for expansion.

CRD officials have said that they want to implement the lottery process and other prerequisites to ensure success—that applicants should be able to prove the ability to farm oysters. But the lottery creates a barrier to entry for local fishermen, who generally don’t have access to the kind of capital required to invest in such a system. There has to be way to introduce oyster farming to the state that doesn’t price out traditional watermen.

How the CRD determines which areas of the marsh are subjected to the lottery is another ambiguity. Without a shellfish scientist or aquaculture specialist on staff, how do regulators choose sites? In other states, farmers are allowed to convince regulators that a particular stretch of water is well-suited for aquaculture, but no similar protocol exists in the bills’ current wording. All discretion and decision-making remains with one department.

In public comment, Coastal Resources Division Director Doug Haymans told legislators that the CRD plans to convene an advisory council of industry members, just as it does with finfish and shrimp fisheries, to help implement the new laws. But what kind of honest criticism about regulations can the regulated make to the regulators? With their livelihoods at stake, how truthful will oystermen be?

Instead of an industry advisory council, it would behoove the CRD to bring together diverse perspectives on growing this nascent industry, including members of the environmental and conservation community, scientists, aquaculture experts, and industry representatives. This would be an essential move in creating transparency as the department unrolls its aquaculture strategy.

If all parties manage to make these murky oyster regulations work as intended—with the common goal of swift, safe, equitable, sustainable aquaculture—we should see multiple Georgia oyster varieties on ice at Atlanta’s raw bars within two to three years of the legislation becoming law. If that’s the case, I’ll issue my apologies to bureaucrats and politicians as I order a dozen McIntosh bivalves.

Update: This story has been amended to include the first name and title of Coastal Resources Division Director Doug Haymans.