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Georgia’s controversial bill to legalize oyster farming nears approval

State lawmakers are attempting to jumpstart the local bivalve aquaculture industry—but not everybody is celebrating.

Oysters used to be big in Georgia. In the early 20th century, the state produced as much as eight million pounds every year to sustain its booming canned oyster industry, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). By the 1940’s, however, NOAA indicates that overharvesting and a declining appetite for canned oysters led to the industry’s demise. Today, the economic value of oysters is a mere blip in the grand scheme of Georgia’s seafood industry.

Today, the economic value of oysters is a mere blip in the grand scheme of Georgia’s seafood industry. To revive the local oyster business, this month state lawmakers passed a major piece of legislation that would establish a framework for harvesters to start and operate oyster farms. However, the bill is proving to be more contentious than expected—by oyster farming advocates, as well as the coastal communities that it’s meant to help.

Currently, only wild oyster harvesting is legal in Georgia. Unlike farmed oysters, wild ones pose unique complications for restaurants and eaters. For one, they grow in unruly clumps that are hard to separate, split, and then serve. For another, they’re not consistently-shaped. Farming allows harvesters to raise oysters in the same coastal waters that wild oysters grow in, while maintaining control over their form. (On oyster farms, baby oysters are regularly “tumbled” like bingo balls in a metal cage to keep them round and cupped.)

“With this legislation, Georgia is limiting the industry before it can even begin.”

The legalization of oyster farming may have great economic potential in Georgia. It could create job opportunities along the coast and give current shellfish harvesters an additional revenue stream. In South Carolina, oyster harvesting brought in $2.29 million in revenue in 2015, according to the latest Fisheries Economics of the United States (FEUS) report, published by the U.S. Department of Commerce. In Florida, that number was $4.43 million. (For Georgia, there wasn’t enough oyster-based revenue to register on the report at all.)

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