There's no cell service on Fish Creek.
There aren't a lot of people, either — in an hour's time we pass only one skiff — "be careful, tide's going out." Lowcountry Oyster Co.'s Trey McMillan cautions the crabbers, and they nod, tossing their wiggling Jimmys into a bucket.
Headquartered at the tip of Bennett's Point, a little over an hour's drive from downtown Charleston, McMillan and his small crew operate their ACE Basin farm with 750 cages on 7.9 subtidal acres.
In 2015, McMillan's farm was the in the first state to be issued a floating cage permit. South Carolina Sea Grant science writer Joey Holleman details why farmers are drawn to this particular method in his 2018 article on single oyster mariculture:
"The high silt content in many South Carolina tidal creeks creates a particularly challenging environment for growing oysters. The industry first began to take off in the state with the advent over the past decade of off-bottom growing technology, basically cages of oysters designed to float high in the water column. In that nutrient rich zone of the water column, single oysters grow faster when not crammed into a space with too many oysters competing for food."
Since 2015, three other farms — Barrier Island Oyster Co., Lady's Island, and May River — have procured permits and are actively using floating cages to grow oysters.
Advocates of this method say that in addition to producing the consistent, high-quality briny oysters that raw bar patrons demand, the cages foster ecosystems helping to not only sustain, but restore the area's wild oyster population. Plus, "the economic impact in Charleston County alone is nearly $13 million between the four companies a year," says McMillan.
So why aren't there more floating cage farms in the state?
- Tyler Davidson
- Lowcountry Oyster Co. operates a farm in the ACE basin with 750 cages
In search of singles
- Ruta Smith
"The entire process can be quite complicated."
South Carolina Department of Natural Resources shellfish management section leader Ben Dyar is one of the oyster farming industry gatekeepers. When someone enters into the permitting process to obtain a shellfish mariculture permit, they will work with Dyar, who coordinates operations with state agency S.C. DHEC's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM) and federal agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"It's very important to involve the public," says Dyar. These are public waterways, after all — the three regulatory bodies who oversee the permitting and management of the oyster farming industry must consider not only the well-meaning small business owner.
They're also considering how the implementation of these water farms will affect navigation, natural resources, public access, and more. Dyar notes that having these three agencies working together also gives them an opportunity to have more than one avenue for public notification.
- Ruta Smith
"The permitting is rigorous, you know, it's a long process," says Barrier Island Oyster Co. director of operations Jared Hulteen. Barrier Island started their floating cage farm off Wadmalaw back in 2016. Like Lowcountry Oyster Co., it's a bit of a drive, about 45 minutes from downtown Charleston. While Hulteen admits that the paperwork and wait time is not for the faint of heart, he also appreciates the stringent regulations these farmers face.
For almost a decade, Hulteen was on the other side of the industry, working at DNR doing shoreline restoration. He also has restaurant industry experience — that combo would form the foundation for a slow-simmering epiphany.
"I was never really an oyster fan, and then I started eating oysters off the shoreline when I was working for DNR and I found South Carolina oysters to be amazing and I said, 'Why are they not doing these at restaurants?'"
For years, diners could only enjoy year-round oysters on the half-shell pulled from northeastern waters ranging from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine. Today, you'll find McMillan's Lowcountry Cups and Barrier Island's Sea Clouds at local raw bars all year long. Hulteen says that's because some "brave entrepreneurs" started to take risks and challenges to pursue the ultimate raw bar delicacy — the single oyster.
If you've ever been to a Lowcountry roast, you've seen the way our oysters naturally grow. In clusters. That's because southeastern oysters are predominantly intertidal, meaning our bivalves live out their lives both underwater (during high tide) and exposed to the air (during low tide), so they gather in clusters to survive.
"It isn't an easy business to get into, to sustain day to day," says Hulteen. "There are so many environmental factors that go into raising these oysters."
For Hulteen and McMillan, the process starts when they purchase tiny oyster seed from one of the state's hatcheries — most often from Lady's Island in Beaufort or Toogoodoo on Yonges Island in Meggett. Founded in 2007 by longtime oysterman and oyster champion Frank Roberts, Lady's Island sold nearly three million seed oysters to growers in S.C. and neighboring states in 2016.
We hold the tiny seed in our hand when we visit McMillan. His Toogoodoo seed will grow in tanks for about six weeks; McMillan says at this stage they hope for a 30-50 percent survival rate, which will leave them with around 5 million baby bivalves.
"See that black stripe — that's like the pigment of skin. It means they're healthy and they're getting all their nutrition." Once they've made it through the tank-growing stage, the oysters will be placed into mesh bags with tiny holes, ready for their 8-12 month adventure in the ACE Basin. As they grow, they'll be transferred to larger bags, and throughout the process, McMillan and crew will haul the bags to their on-land sorting facility, where they tumble and sort and clean the oysters, being sure to never overcrowd oysters in the bag.
- Ruta Smith
Though S.C. farms did not procure floating cage permits until recently, the technology behind this method was in the works for years.
Holleman writes: "The basics of off-bottom oyster mariculture are based on decades of trial and error. Coated metal cages with plastic floats are anchored in rows where creeks are deep enough for cages to stay under water at low tide but still be outside the main navigation channel."
- Ruta Smith
This is not to say that floating farms are the only way to produce singles. OG mollusk man Clammer Dave Belanger has been selling clams and oysters locally (and to eateries in New York and Tennessee) for over 10 years, operating along Capers Island Wildlife Refuge just north of Charleston. He employs the centuries-old, sustainable technique of harvesting wild oysters called "culling in place" where you pull out single oysters and leave the rest of the cluster in place on the shoreline.
Clammer Dave has both a catchy moniker and a great reputation with local purveyors, but not everyone who harvests wild oysters does so in a sustainable way.
"It's no secret that the wild oyster population is declining," says Hulteen. He references commercial state shellfish grounds being shut down more than once in the past couple of years due to sewage spills. "What ends up happening is that people who make a living picking wild oysters, they end up aggregating on other state shellfish grounds, and they're decimating those — it's a domino effect. Being able to farm single oysters is a step to solving that problem."
- Ruta Smith
- Cultivating single oysters is a very hands-on process
While farmers understandably bemoan the permitting process, which can stretch out over a period of 18 to 24 months, the serious ones, like McMillan and Hulteen, are more than ready to commit. They even get philosophical about it. "I wanted to share that oyster with people — it was really a transcendent experience for me having those oysters on the shoreline," says Hulteen. "I asked, 'How do I bring this to people, how do I get oysters to people in a different way that's not steamed, where they can really taste the water they're grown in, the merroir.'"
But not everyone is convinced that floating cages are the future of the oyster industry.
This March, residents, oyster farmers, researchers, and regulatory agencies came together for two separate meetings to discuss proposed floating cage permits for sites located on Edisto and James islands. At the time, WCBD quoted one resident in attendance at the James Island meeting, Geniveve Hay, who represented "the boating community." In her 15-minute presentation, Hay said, "I hope that we can put a pause on this industry until all of these concerns can be discussed and thought out."
McMillan attended that James Island meeting, held at the DNR office off Fort Johnson Road. He spoke on behalf of farmers, urging that the industry is not barreling ahead haphazardly or making beaucoup bucks overnight.
Hulteen and Barrier Island's director of sales and marketing Josh Eboch attended the Edisto Island meeting, and found the same impressions in the crowd there.
"When we went to the Edisto hearing at least one person who spoke in opposition said, 'Well, why can't you just do it the way it has always been done?' ... If you want us to do it the way it's always been done, it will disappear entirely and our shared culture will go away," says Eboch. "There is a certain level of naïveté to that attitude. You can't build a business that way, but even more than that, the resource cannot survive that way."
On one side of the meetings, you had the farmers, defending their livelihood. On the other, residents, defending their way of life.
Tensions reached a boiling point, though, when a group of these concerned residents created a Facebook page and website, Save Lowcountry Waterways.
"In the last few months, some of the most pristine waters in Charleston County have been targeted as sites for massive series of floating oyster cages," the website reads. "Our mission is to educate the public about the concerns these cages pose to our landscape, navigation, and marine life, and to advocate for protections for the most beautiful and vulnerable waters held in the public trust." The group posted photos of picturesque Lowcountry waterways with the warning, "Let's keep this..." next to photos of long lines of floating cages located somewhere out of state, "...from becoming this."
- Save Lowcountry Waterways
Needless to say McMillan — who had successfully been using floating cages long before the group was formed — was pissed. "Initially, I didn't have a dog in the fight, but once they changed it from 'Save the Stono' to 'Save the Waterways' that's when I said, 'Enough.' "
McMillan fired back, starting a petition titled Save South Carolina Oysters. (The petition currently has 7,552 signatures.) In the petition, McMillan outlined and addressed the concerns put forth by the group — that oyster farms block waterways, deter wildlife, and are too-easily permitted.
Save Lowcountry Waterways did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
According to the S.C. Code of Laws Marine Resources Act, "The department may grant permits to any state resident for the exclusive use of portions of the intertidal or subtidal state-bottoms or waters for commercial shellfish culture or mariculture not to exceed an aggregate of one hundred surface acres of waters to any entity."
"There is all this mis-information and miscommunication — the main thing is to get people to understand and get on board with what we're doing," says Charleston Oyster Farm co-owner Caitlyn Mayer.
The first oyster farm located in the City of Charleston operates off of a tiny private island west of Folly Beach in the inlet where the Kiawah, Folly, and Stono rivers meet. They use the less-efficient bottom cage method which makes for slow, laborious farming. Knowing there was a better way to grow, in 2016, Charleston Oyster Farm put in an application to install floating cages in the Stono River and Green Creek. Permit details are made public by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers online.
"We've had our [Green Creek] floating cage permit since January 2018," says Mayer. "They just keep appealing it."
Residents who live near or own property near the sites where Charleston Oyster Farm put in for a floating cage permit took the farm to court, and since January 2018, the farm has been tied up in legal battles. Nearly three years after submitting their initial 20-page application, they still have not been able to build their farm. If you look up the latitude and longitude of the proposed sites on Google Earth, you won't see docks or homes nearby. But they're still in the city of Charleston, and for some, at this stage, that may be too close for comfort.
"The real policy question is about balance — how do we find balance? Lots of interests come to the table." S.C. Sea Grant Consortium executive director Rick DeVoe, has "been around the block a bit." DeVoe has been studying aquaculture policy since the 1980s, and though the technology and methodology of growing oysters has changed, the same considerations surrounding mariculture have been in place for decades.
"Our philosophy all along has been sustainability," explains DeVoe. "Economic is one way — as a state, we want to generate an industry that will be able to sustain itself so that they can work in an environment that will be conducive to their success. At the same time, we want to look at environmental sustainability. The third thing is social sustainability — is this something we want as a society?"
- Jack Gresh
Crassostrea Virginica, the Eastern oyster, has long been prized along the South Carolina coast. According to Victor G. Burrell Jr.'s 2003 report, South Carolina Oyster Industry: A History, "The oyster has been utilized by man for at least 4,000 years in South Carolina."
During colonial times, "In Charleston, a fleet of boats and crews harvested the oysters along creek banks. The oysters then were peddled from carts and eaten in homes by all classes from poor to rich, and in commercial eating places which served raw oysters on the half-shell."
A couple of centuries later, Conde Nast Traveler has named Charleston, once again, their favorite small city in the world. A large part of the city's international appeal is derived from the city's renowned hospitality industry.
"I'll be buying a pair of pants at Billy Reid and overhear someone ask 'where do you get the best fish?'" laughs Mike Lata. The James Beard award-winning chef says that one of his restaurants, The Ordinary, would "not exist if not for guys like Frank [Roberts] and Clammer Dave" bringing a half-shell oyster to the market back in 2008. "It's a real feather in our cap — the seafood availability in town."
John Keener, president of the Lowcountry Hospitality Association (LHA), says, "As an avid oyster eater, our oysters are better than any other oysters." LHA is "in full support of local fishermen," says Keener. "If they have the right regulations and the right people doing it, it's great for our industry."
But what are the right regulations? And who determines them?
While they have no regulatory power, the Sea Grant Consortium has been an invaluable resource for those who do have that power. The researchers and scientists at the Consortium are, as DeVoe says, "in the game of generating scientific information that can be used as people are trying to figure out what decisions are being made." In fact, they are half-way through a project titled, "Examining the Social Carrying Capacity for Mariculture Development on the South Carolina Coast."
DeVoe says in about a year we should know much more. "We're trying to be proactive ... the industry is very complex, because you've got public waters and marine organisms and it involves developing a product for consumption," says DeVoe.
Quiet on the homefront
Once the heated meetings, petition, and Facebook page posts settled down this spring, McMillan said at the time, "At this point there's no bill or anything that can be passed or dropped until January, so as of now it's quiet on the homefront. I'm sure something else will come up soon."
The last post by Save Lowcountry Waterways came on March 19. One vocal supporter, state Sen. Sandy Senn, posted a legislative update the week of March 18-22 with takeaways from the James Island DNR meeting, indicating that related legislation was being considered. "We will also need to better address legislatively who should get personal notice of applications for the permits ... Bonding and insurance coverage needs to be increased and mandated legislatively ... I am actually contemplating a bill demanding a boat traffic study as part of the permitting process."
Senn did not return messages seeking comment for this story.
When asked, farmers say they don't want to speculate about what may transpire over the next legislative session. Instead, they're raising awareness through fundraisers like the one they held this year on National Oyster Day, when local restaurants donated a portion of their oyster sales to raise funds to "educate the public on sustainable mariculture practices in our state."
Restaurants including Chubby Fish, Royal Tern, Darling Oyster Bar, Nico Seafood +Oysters, Prohibition, and The Ordinary participated in the National Oyster Day fundraiser.
"We are now more connected to the water — farming oysters is the best feel-good story," says Lata. "It's a net win for the environment, a net win for the local economy, and a net win for our culinary identity."