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Lowcountry Oyster Co. operates one of South Carolina's five floating-cage oyster farms in the region. Growers say it's the most reliable way to farm oysters, but some boaters and waterfront property owners are opposed to them. File/Provided

EDISTO ISLAND — Everyone here loves oysters. 

At least, that's the impression that came across Tuesday during a public hearing, as resident after resident said they were huge fans of one of the Lowcountry's most iconic products.

But they were not such big fans of the floating cages to grow the shellfish that may land in Steamboat Creek. 

"I just feel like our waters are our waters to enjoy, not for one person to profit off of," said Pamela Comport, who lives on nearby Russell Creek. 

A two-person team has applied to locate what eventually could be as many as 700 cages in the creek along the island's north end. Aubrey Sanders and Michael Kalista, residents of the Charleston region who previously have worked on a shellfish farm, say they're committed to being good stewards of the environment and growing a product that Edisto can take pride in. 

The duo have scoured the state's waters for places to locate, and "Steamboat Creek is certainly the most accommodating," Kalista said.

Trying to grow there requires undergoing a regulatory review by three agencies that could stretch as long as 18 months. Tuesday's hearing was a preliminary stop on that road, and many fellow oyster growers spoke in an attempt to clarify their still-fledgling industry. Only five cage growers have been permitted so far by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. 

One local chef, Mike Geib of 167 Raw, argued in favor of the farm, saying the business should be allowed the opportunity to compete against farms in the Northeast that flood the market with shellfish at dirt-cheap prices. 

Several locals, however, expressed concerns over the aesthetics of the floating cages. They also worried that boaters coming around the bend could collide with the equipment at the mouth of Steamboat Creek, which empties into the North Edisto River. Comport said boaters often moor near the site where the cages might be placed, making the channel narrower than it appears on maps. 

"We all love oysters, but we would like to see some other method of growing oysters," said islander Gordon Hay.

The problem, farmers said, is that the surface cages produce a superior product. The state's pioneer of the method was Frank Roberts, who operates Lady's Island Oyster Co. in Beaufort County and who provides the oyster seed to growers in the Carolinas and beyond. 

South Carolina's silty summer waters make it nearly impossible to grow a significant yield with a cage on the bottom of a creek, Roberts said. An oyster searching for food there is tantamount to "digging through a 5-gallon bucket of sand for two grains of corn."

"I resisted this until I saw its performance, and I couldn't believe it," he said. "It was a no-brainer."

Roberts said his farm is next to the heavily trafficked Intracoastal Waterway, and he often interacts with curious boaters but never has had someone collide with his equipment. 

In January, concern over the Steamboat Creek farm erupted as posts of oyster farms elsewhere started surfacing on social media. Kalista and Sanders said the images were not representative of their project, and that some information, such as claims they are from out of state, was simply incorrect.

But the issue has attracted the attention of state Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, who convened a meeting with Kalista and some concerned boaters last week to discuss the practice. Senn said Wednesday that she's worried about the Edisto site's proximity to locals who oppose it, and she wondered if the situation could escalate if a farm were established there. 

She compared the situation to a turf war around Johns and James Islands years ago, where warring crabbers started mangling each others' pots. 

"If (the Steamboat farm) didn't have someone who values their business who lives near their business, to keep an eye on their business, I could see sabotage occurring," she said. 

Senn said she's also considering whether the application fees for the farms should be raised to fund more oversight by DNR after the farms are in place. Oyster farms are already required to hold an indemnity bond to pay for any damage if the equipment comes loose or there's an accident on the property. 

Comport said those who live on or near Steamboat Creek and would be most affected are united in their opposition. But one islander, though he didn't live on the creek itself, was supportive. 

"This is a quintessential Edisto business. We had shrimpers and we had tomato growers and we've had oystermen and crabbers. This is a big point of who this island is," Pinkney Mikell said. "It's where we come from, it’s what we do."

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Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

Chloe Johnson covers the coastal environment and climate change for the Post and Courier. She's always looking for a good excuse to hop on a boat.

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