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Trendsetters: The Return of the Oyster

If you’ve perused a restaurant menu lately looking for Georgia-grown oysters, you’ve been out of luck. But now, thanks to the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service, local oysters on the half-shell will be a reality by next winter.

“Everybody is trying to get back in touch with where their food comes from,” says Tom Bliss, director of the extension’s Shellfish Research Lab, which has found a way at its Skidaway Institute to convince local oysters that usually attach to each other in clusters to go it alone. “We get calls from restaurants wanting to know where they can find Georgia oysters.”

Wild oysters grow throughout 157,000 acres of intertidal saltwater marshes along the coast. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources limits harvesting of wild bivalves to fewer than 20 licensed oystermen to maintain quality. The oyster shells vary in size and are hard and brittle, so while they are often sold locally for private roasts, restaurants don’t typically put them on the menu.

“People in the coastal area just love their clumped oysters, but being able to provide single oysters opens up additional markets for our growers,” Bliss says.

Oysters are nothing new here; in fact, the state was a hotbed of oyster cultivation in the early 1900s. Back then, canned oysters were hugely popular, and the state harvested more oyster meat than anywhere else in the country – some 8 million pounds a year.

However, there were no regulations on the industry, so in the attempt to meet diners’ appetites, local oysters were plucked from the water one too many times and the industry dried up.

“They did overharvest certain areas, and then interest in canned oysters started to tail off. So it was a two-fold thing,” Bliss says. By the 1960s, the last of the shucking houses along the Georgia coast were gone.

Off the coast of Skidaway Island, researchers have now established a hatchery that “sets” oyster larvae – called spat – so that they will grow one by one rather than in clumps. Then researchers give them to local oystermen, who carefully tend their crops for the next 15 months before harvesting and selling them to seafood distributors. In return, the oystermen share their experiences and data with the scientists to continue to perfect the system.

“It takes more labor to [grow single oysters], but the value of the oyster goes up considerably,” Bliss says. While wild oysters sell for $35 to $60 for a bag of several hundred, a single oyster can be sold for anywhere between 35 cents and $1.

This year, the hatchery provided 300,000 to 600,000 spat. By 2018, when the hatchery is well established, it will be producing between 5 million and 6 million spat per year – about $1.6 million worth. Eventually, the hope is that a commercial hatchery will set up shop and grow the industry to an even larger capacity.

Much like the way the dirt grapevines are grown in affects the flavor of a wine, how oysters taste is in part determined by the water they live in.

So while Moon Shoals oysters grown along Cape Cod have a citrusy, almost vanilla-like flavor and Miyagi oysters from the West Coast have a buttery and mineraly taste, Georgia’s oysters tend to be salty and almost sweet with what some locals describe as a hint of lemongrass.

“Oysters take on the flavors of the waters that they’re in, and Georgia oysters are always a little bit saltier,” Bliss says, adding that the single oysters can be sold far beyond Georgia’s state lines. “There’s a lot of people who like tasting that regional difference. Some of the higher-end raw bars, they might carry 12 varieties and each one is from a different location.”

When Dave Snyder, owner and executive chef of St. Simons Island restaurants Halyards and Tramici, is asked if he would put single Georgia oysters on the half-shell on his menu, his reply is an enthusiastic “Heck yeah.

“There’s nothing comparable when you have something coming out of the ocean that’s only one or two days old,” Snyder says. “That’s worth paying for.” – Christy Simo

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