Farming the tides

Marine biologist Charlotte Hieronymus checks the growth of oysters that she and her husband Danny are growing at St. Jude Farms.

— For Danny Hieronymus, the sea is the limit. You can see it in the gleaming cages, the chunky oysters in the sweep of the Ashepoo River delta tide.

Despite a fits-and-starts history, farming might yet be the future of shellfish in the developing Lowcountry. The St. Jude Farms hatchery where Hieronymus is operations manager could be shucking the shell off the product that makes the mouthwatering difference — select singles of the salty regional oyster.

“The quality of the product is excellent and the demand is growing,” said Al Stokes, director of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Waddell Mariculture Center near Bluffton.

The University of Georgia Marine Extension Service is launching that state’s first oyster hatchery, according to an extension news release. Organizers expect it to harvest an estimated $1.6 million worth per year and call it a game-changer for the crop there.

Hieronymus has a three-year head start on them. He had one customer when St. Jude Farms opened business at Bennetts Point. Today he has 300 retail and restaurant customers, with more calling each day. Last year the hatchery produced 49,500 trademarked “Charleston Salts” singles, and the company processed more than 300,000 wild-harvest singles, 1,286 bushels and 926 pecks of clusters.

That doesn’t count the trademarked Sweetgrass Mussels, clams or finfish. On a recent morning, Hieronymus was on the phone trying to find a customer a swordfish. The hatchery oysters, though, “are our bread and butter,” he said, sizable, tasty singles that are prized.

The key to the business is “we’re not only a seafood supplier, we’re a producer,” he said.

About half the seafood eaten in the world today is farm-raised, or mariculture. Shrinking wild harvests and relentlessly growing populations have experts estimating that it will be 65 percent by 2030. The industry is growing worldwide, but in the Lowcountry, it’s never really taken off despite any number of stabs at it — shrimp, eels and the like.

Water temperatures here vary too widely from summer to winter, limiting growers to little more than a crop per year of some species. Strict safety standards and regulation make it difficult and too labor intensive to compete with cheaper product raised overseas, where standards are more lax. As just one example, St. Jude Farms must repeatedly check water temperature at its hatchery.

“We can’t do it for that price,” said Mel Bell, DNR fisheries management director.

The height of the mariculture effort in South Carolina might have been in the early 1990s, when 15 shrimp farms operated, producing more than 1 million pounds per year. But economics, disease and other problems decimated it.

Today, a few mariculture farms operate, including David Belanger’s clam hatchery in the sound behind Isle of Palms, and three small shrimp farms, Stokes said. The Waddell center itself continues to be the core of the industry here, producing shrimp year-round, red drum, sea trout and cobia, for research and restocking.

A niche industry is starting to develop from its success with indoor grown shrimp. In addition to the private operations in South Carolina, Stokes has gotten interest from as far as Louisiana and Iowa.

“The technology has developed in the United States (since the 1990s), and a lot of it has developed here at Waddell,” he said.

In the developing Lowcountry, though, mariculture remains a work in progress. Some of the most popular and profitable products worldwide, such as salmon, simply can’t be grown here, Bell said. “It’s not that we haven’t tried it,” he said.

For other species, operations can be hampered by problems such as stormwater runoff pollution, litter, floods, even boat wakes. But Stokes said technology advances will allow growers to move inland as well as indoors.

St. Jude Farms benefits from its location in the heart of the ACE Basin, a patchwork of more than a quarter-million acres of conserved land in the deltas of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Rivers. The environs give the water quality a level of protection few other locations on the East Coast can match.

At Bennetts Point, Hieronymus stays on the move, pausing at moments to breathe in the salt air and eye the tide in the wind chop, wanting to get a crew out to tend to 750 cages along nearly 10 acres of the Ashepoo. St. Jude Farms now grows its crop from “seed oysters,” tiny shelled mollusks. He’s looking at growing from the larvae, cutting expenses and giving more control over the product.

“You’re raising babies out there for the most part,” he said.

He remembers when he first set out the cages in the delta, DNR started getting calls from anglers about someone using fish traps, which are illegal. Old timers would ask him, “whatcha gonna catch in those things,” and get wide-eyed when he told them. “What do you feed them” he would be asked. “Cold beer and Led Zeppelin,” he kidded.

But with each restaurant that sets out an iced plate, the cachet grows for Charleston Salts, wild-harvest ACE Blades and Otter Island Singles grows. The oysters are becoming a boutique product that people pay for, rather than settle for cheaper-grown foreign imports.

“More and more the public is getting educated,” he said. As new customers call, Hieronymus continues to expand. Is he anywhere near the limit of what the farm can produce?

“That word is not in my vocabulary,” he said. “It’s go big or go home.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.