Georgia’s controversial bill to legalize oyster farming nears approval

Lawmakers legalize oyster farming in Georgia, but not everyone is happy. Credit: KatieDobies / iStock, March 2019

KatieDobies / iStock

Lawmakers legalize oyster farming in Georgia, but not everyone is happy. Credit: KatieDobies / iStock, March 2019

KatieDobies / iStock

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.

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.)

Given all its possible payoffs, why is the oyster aquaculture bill facing pushback from some oyster farming advocates? Some claim that the way the bill is designed would stifle rather than support aquaculture.

“Setting Georgia’s oyster mariculture industry up for success would create significant opportunities, but with this legislation, Georgia is limiting the industry before it can even begin,” says Alex Muir, a representative of the coastal advocacy nonprofit One Hundred Miles, which supports oyster farming but opposed Georgia’s bill. (Mariculture is aquaculture that takes place in the ocean.)

One of the key criticisms pertains to language on when oysters raised in aquaculture can be harvested. As it stands, the bill expresses concern about farming the bivalves in the summer months, purportedly due to health concerns. Raw oysters have been linked to a disease called vibriosis, which can cause stomach issues to eaters and even be fatal for young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. The risk of oysters containing the vibrio bacteria rises in the warmer months of summer.

However, improvements in oyster aquaculture have mitigated that danger, and in both South Carolina and Florida, oyster farms are permitted to harvest year-round. This means that right off the bat, Georgia’s oyster farms face an economic and operational disadvantage.

“All of us want safety. That’s the number one objective for everybody. Nobody wants someone getting sick from oysters,” says Muir. “But we need that twelve-month harvest because you can’t tell an investor: ‘I can’t harvest four months out of the year.’”

“We felt like it would be a way to give everybody a shot at farming these oysters, rather than just a couple of companies.”
But Rep. Jesse Petrea, who drafted the bill, disputed this characterization. Petrea sees the bill’s language as a means to encourage caution, but not to prohibit summer harvesting altogether.

“This is the first time we will have created the ability to farm oysters [in Georgia],” Petrea tells me over the phone. “The departments that deal with this kind of process—the department of natural resources and the department of agriculture—want a year-round season and they anticipate a year-round season and they expect a year-round season.”

Another point of contention in the oyster aquaculture bill is related to how leases will be distributed to potential harvesters: by lottery, open to both Georgia and out-of-state farmers. While this may appear fair on the surface, it doesn’t necessarily work to help Georgia’s own oyster harvesters.

“There’s no guarantee that farmers from Georgia would get preference,” Muir notes.

In fact, the randomness of a lottery system could easily discourage potential oyster farms from participating, depending on how cost-prohibitive an application is.

“If you’ve got to get a steep investment for an oyster farm and then you have to rely on a lottery system to have a lease, how the hell is that supposed to work?” says Bryan Rackley, co-founder of Oyster South, a nonprofit that promotes the development of oyster farming in the south, and a restaurateur based in Decatur.

Petrea defended the lottery system, saying that an indiscriminate distribution of leases would be more equitable than granting them based on economics.

“One of the things that was very important to me is that we didn’t end up with one or two big organizations from out of state dominating all of the leases,” Petrea says. “We felt like it would be a way to give everybody a shot at farming these oysters, rather than just a couple of companies.”

Petrea also pointed out that for all the bill’s criticisms, it’s still a document that can be adjusted through public comment.

Adaptation of the bill, rather than scrapping it and starting over, may be the only way forward for oyster aquaculture in Georgia at this point. The bill is currently poised to be signed into law by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.