Photo: Erik Lovestrand
There are a number of parallels than can be drawn between shellfish farming and traditional forms of agriculture that take place on the land. The most obvious similarities are the amount of hard work, grit and faith that are required of the farmer on land or sea. In spite of this there are many “salty” farmers in the Florida Panhandle who have mustered the faith requirement and are now putting in the hard work necessary to help build this budding industry in the Southeastern U.S.
Market demand for quality oysters has continued to outstrip available supplies for several years of late. This has been due in part to better marketing strategies employed by growers as well as clientele becoming aware of the health benefits of fresh oysters; a great supply of important vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C and B vitamins, zinc, selenium and iron. However, supply/demand ratios are not the only important factor in developing a thriving oyster aquaculture industry. Also required, is the necessary infrastructure to support the grower’s equipment needs, enough sources of baby oyster “seed”, a reliable refrigerated transportation network for live shellfish, and the support of regulatory agencies in making water leases available in suitable growing areas.
Fortunately, the stars seem to be aligning for many of these industry-growth necessities and the business of oyster farming is gaining a firmer foundation to build upon. One of the important milestones for Florida was the approval of “full-water-column” leases, which allows the use of floating oyster cages or bags. Previously, oysters were required to be grown on the bay bottom and this made them susceptible to higher levels of predation from crabs and snails and severe biofouling (barnacles and algae) on the exterior of the mesh bags. Heavy biofouling reduces the water flow through the oyster’s growing environment, thus the available food for this filter feeding bivalve.
One critical need for this industry is the availability of quality “seed” (baby oysters) to put in the growing waters. Seed oysters are supplied by hatcheries where oyster brood stocks are spawned and babies are raised to the necessary age for grower needs. Some growers use baby oyster larvae that have not settled and attached yet. These “eyed larvae” are put in a tank with old oyster shell and allowed to attach on the shells, which are then deployed at a lease site. Other growers use seed that has already attached to a small particle of crushed shell and are sold as individual oysters to be placed in grow-out bags or cages. The more recent development of oyster stocks with 3 sets of chromosomes (triploids) have provided growers with an oyster that gets to market size faster. Triploid oysters are infertile and do not use energy for spawning, thereby putting more energy into shell and tissue growth. Federal and state laws also govern where growers can buy their seed in an effort aimed at stopping the spread of shellfish disease from one body of water to another (i.e. Atlantic to Gulf of Mexico, etc.).
Even if all of the hardware and infrastructure is in place, there is still one other factor that plays a significant role in whether an oyster farmer will be successful. Just like the dairy farmer, the cattle rancher, the cotton or peanut grower, or the blueberry producer; backbreaking labor is necessary for many stages of the production cycle. Oyster growers work their leases either bending over the gunnels of a boat or actually being in the water, lifting heavy bags or cages of shellfish, sorting by size, re-caging, and moving lots of materials to and from the lease area. True grit and a dogged determination to stay on top of things, regardless of unpleasant conditions, are vital to raising a successful crop of oysters. And by the way, don’t forget that Mother Nature will have the final word. As all farmers know, they are required to be a good listener when she speaks.