Oysters have appeared on Thanksgiving tables in the Lowcountry since the advent of the holiday in the South, yet the bivalve this year may figure directly into celebrants’ expressions of gratitude, since the local crop’s future is looking brighter.
The number of oyster mariculture operations in South Carolina has doubled since 2015, with two companies now practicing in the Charleston area. Additionally, the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium has been awarded federal funds to further the industry, which has contributed to the economic development of other coastal states.
“We’re all kind of in it together,” says Jared Hulteen of Barrier Island Oyster of efforts to take pressure off the wild single stock.
Because of environmental degradation, South Carolina’s famed reefs are now producing a mere fraction of the oysters that harvesters collected a generation ago. Mariculture, defined by S.C. Department of Natural Resources as "the controlled cultivation of shellfish in confinement from seed size until harvest," is one way to keep up with the current raw bar rage.
Of course, many traditional Thanksgiving oyster dishes don’t require the small-batch farmed oysters commonly referred to as "boutique." (See accompanying story for one way to prepare oysters for the holiday.) But should your meal begin with a festive serving of oysters on the half shell, local oysters raised from seed might provide the ideal way to usher in the nation’s annual tribute to its natural bounty.
Learning the ropes
Twin brothers Peter and Tom Bierce, along with their partner Caitlyn Mayer, were the first to raise oysters from seed in the Charleston area. The trio last year secured a lease on underwater acreage in Green Creek off the Stono River, which they christened Charleston Oyster Farm.
All three have backgrounds in environmental science, and a dogged belief that they can make a positive difference in the world. When they graduated from the College of Charleston with degrees in geology, both Mayer and Peter Bierce watched as their classmates landed high-paying jobs in the energy sector. But the couple decided to leave money on the table and use their powers for good.
They bought their first batch of seed from South Carolina mariculture pioneer Frank Roberts, who in 2014 built the state’s first oyster hatchery. After months of hard work and uncertainty, they'll finally see their first harvest over the coming weeks.
“If it were easy, would it be worth it?,” Mayer says of the hurdles they’ve encountered in a sector that the state is just starting to regulate.
Hulteen and Josh Eboch of Barrier Island Oyster also met as students at the College of Charleston, and likewise emphasize environmental sustainability. Hulteen says their methods don't harm wild stock. “We’re getting them from the hatcheries and putting them in cages. We’re putting out spawning oysters that will breed new reefs.”
In other words, he says, the farm is actually enhancing wild stock.
Both Barrier Island and Charleston Oyster Farm raise the same species of oyster, Crassotrea virginica. In fact, all East Coast oysters are of the same species. But that’s not to say the two farms are turning out the same product. Like crops grown on land, oysters reflect conditions specific to their growing environments.
“The taste of the oyster is going to be different from farm to farm because the composition of the water is different,” Eboch says of merroir, the equivalent of terroir for oysters.
While all East Coast oysters are C. virginica, certain farmed oysters exhibit a genetic trait known as polyploidy, which means they carry extra sets of chromosomes. Triploid oysters were developed in the 1990s through selective breeding, the same process that gave us seedless watermelons. And like a seedless watermelon, a triploid oyster can’t reproduce.
In late fall and winter, oysters are at their fattest and most succulent. Tucked into casser…
That means that when wild oysters are diverting energy to spawning, the triploid is busy getting fatter and more delicious. Consequently, farmed oysters can reach harvest-size three times faster than their wild kin.
What’s more, a cultivated oyster can be encouraged to develop certain prized traits such as deeper cups or a defined shape, which is part of the reason for the higher price of farmed oysters.
Still, oyster farmers say there’s no reason the delicacy should be reserved for the holidays. Recent changes to state regulations allow for summer harvest of triploid oysters, which will allow locals and tourists to enjoy Charleston oysters all year round.