Ask Kimball House co-owner Bryan Rackley about any gaps in his Decatur restaurant’s oyster menu, and his answer comes clear and quick: On a list that includes selections from the Carolinas, Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana, he can offer no Georgia oysters. The omission, he says, is as frustrating as it is glaring. “To not have oysters from our home state represented, when there’s so much prime real estate [for production], is a missed opportunity,” Rackley says.
For many years, oyster aquaculture farms in the Northeast and on the West Coast have dominated U.S. shellfish production. More recently, Southern oysters from the Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico, and the Pamlico Sound have carved out regular slots on the chip ice at regional oyster bars. But Georgia continues to be absent.
The reasons why Rackley can’t source a local oyster are ecological, historical, and political. They’re also surmountable, and scientists at the University of Georgia and culinary advocates like Rackley are speeding up the process.
Georgia’s 100-mile-long coastline supports a thriving estuary in which wild oysters proliferate. They form clusters, ugly piles of small oysters that look like bouquets of razor-sharp shells sprouting from river muck. The vast majority of oysters served at restaurants like Kimball House are farmed, and the difference between wild and farmed is striking. Farmed oysters are grown in cages from lab-produced seed, which typically takes about two years, and develop a uniform shape; they’re referred to as “singles.” Clusters are the country cousins of farmed oysters, too untamed for fine dining. While plentiful in number, cluster oysters are labor-intensive, messy monsters to shuck, making outdoor oyster roasts the preferable setting.
One hundred years ago, Georgia’s wild oyster bounty made the state a leader in an industry that functioned far differently than it does today. Oystermen, usually African Americans, hauled boatloads of bivalves from rivers and sounds to community canneries owned by white businessmen. Workers, usually black women, shucked the shells, extracted the meat, and steamed it in tins that could be shipped hundreds of miles inland. Both cohorts were paid piecemeal.
The boom didn’t last. Canneries lost their workers to urban migration and federal minimum wage laws in the 1960s, and various shellfish disease epidemics whittled down oyster populations. Companies that employed hundreds of people and owned dozens of boats and canneries closed. By the end of the 20th century, the industry consisted of part-time solo fishermen who sold oysters, along with catches of crabs, to neighbors and small retail shops.
Marine scientists at the University of Georgia decided the best way for them to help bring the industry into the modern era would be to build an oyster hatchery. In 2015, one opened at the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant Shellfish Laboratory on Skidaway Island. A hatchery produces seed oysters, the first element in the farming process. Seed oysters mature in cages in brackish water farms, where they are tended—or “tumbled,” as farmers say—to ensure a deeply cupped shell. As they grow, oysters feed off phytoplankton in the water, which gives them a distinctive taste of place. Georgia’s estuaries create a bracingly salty oyster compared to more mild ones from the Gulf, with a crisp, vegetal flavor that results from the abundant cordgrass growing throughout the area. The hatchery currently produces millions of seed oysters for ongoing experiments to prove whether current oyster farming technology can succeed in Georgia’s marshes.
Shellfish Research Laboratory Director Tom Bliss says Georgia’s oyster-farming industry can catch up in terms of production to its contemporaries in five years. But first, the lab must provide enough seed to create a steady supply for farmers, and the state must pass regulations to allow for aquaculture “gear” (essentially, cages) and restructure how waterways are divided up for commercial use. Only then could a new generation of oyster entrepreneurs enter the trade. Once the process becomes predictable, Bliss says, “it will be easier to increase distribution to get Georgia oysters inland to markets in Atlanta.”
In addition to the research and outreach from Bliss’s lab, the nonprofit Oyster South is working to encourage oyster farming in the region (Rackley is a founder and prominent voice in the organization).
Georgia’s oyster sales were valued at a modest $120,000 last year. Bliss calls the industry’s potential economic impact “tremendous” for the state’s fishing communities; in the last decade, the oyster industry in North Carolina expanded exponentially and is now worth $2 million. Georgia, he claims, can quickly match that success.
Rackley, for one, can’t wait for the Georgia oyster’s rebirth.
“When it does happen,” he says, “our menu will be closer to complete.”
This article appears in our May 2018 issue.