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New SC oyster farm raises concerns about floating hazards, growing industry

A new oyster farm is trying to launch on Edisto Island, but the group seeking to become the latest members of a small local industry already faces choppy waters.

Michael Kalista and Aubrey Sanders, two Lowcountry residents with experience in mariculture, applied this year to place an oyster farm in Steamboat Creek, which empties into the North Edisto River at the top of Edisto Island.

The state already has permitted five similar businesses, which use floating cages to grow the bivalves instead of the traditional method of harvesting them wild off the banks of a tidal river or creek.

The farms have caused concern among some residents of the area who are uneasy about both the industrial aspect of the practice and the potential hazard to boaters who may not be aware the cages are in the creek.

State Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, worried that a rush of companies might try to monopolize the state's waterways for the industry.

"They are really going to have to be good neighbors," Senn said of a new farm in Steamboat Creek.

Kalista and Sanders said they're eager to show the community more of their plans and that along with selling oysters, they see their mission as helping to improve the creek itself. 

"We believe in the purpose," Kalista said. "We’re doing this to be good stewards of the environment."

'Not just a bunch of wahoos'

When news of the proposed Edisto oyster farm surfaced, posts on Facebook claimed the company was from the Chesapeake Bay. It was just one of many details that Kalista and Sanders said simply aren't correct.

Only residents of the state, or those who have lived in South Carolina for at least a year, are eligible for a permit. Businesses that apply have to have operated in the state for a year as well. 

Cage farming has been experimented with since 2012, said Malcolm Jenkins, who along with partner Trey McMillan runs Lowcountry Oyster Co.

Cultivators use only local seed to grow their crop. The technique, Jenkins said, has the best yields and produces the best product — all other methods, including wild harvest, are "wildly unpredictable" in how many oysters might be produced year to year. 

Jenkins' business took over a site in the ACE Basin last year from the now-defunct St. Jude Farms, and he had to go through the same screening as the Steamboat project currently faces: a complex permitting process involving three state and federal agencies. 

"It's not just a bunch of wahoos out here doing it," Jenkins said.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and S.C. Department of Natural resources are all involved in a review that can take 18 months in a best case scenario, said Mel Bell, director of DNR's Office of Fisheries Management.

The process involves making sure that the farm's site plan won't inhibit the navigational channel on waterways and that the owners have a plan for a serious storm. In such an event, the Steamboat Creek farm would sink its cages, a common technique that keeps equipment away from breaking waves but also sacrifices much of the crop. 

In the case of DNR, the agency has to weigh the best use of natural resources for both farming businesses and the state's recreational community.

"We're constantly looking at it from a standpoint of balance," Bell said. "The regulations are there not to harass people or to over-restrict people, but basically to make we sure we do this correctly and do it safely."

'Who's going to keep it straight'

On Edisto, the controversy over an oyster farm first erupted in January, as residents worried the mariculture operation would inhibit access to the creek's landing, one of the few public landings in the area. 

In reality, the farm would be located on a shallow edge of the mouth of the creek, a significant distance away.

"We’re all very defensive of our little landing," said Bud Skidmore, who grew up boating and playing in Steamboat Creek. "We're all very protective of it. We don't want anybody messing it up."

Skidmore said he's in favor of the farm and said the additional water filtering from the new oysters would be "a big potential benefit." 

Still, others on Edisto worry about the impacts of industrializing oyster cultivation. Vincent Flowers owns and operates Flowers Seafood in a bright blue building just off S.C. Highway 174. He said the new business could impact his own sales, but its bigger effect might be to distract from the island's natural beauty. 

And he worried about the apparatus being maintained properly.

"It’s a lot of keep-up there, and I don't know who's going to keep it straight," Flowers said. "They could bring all the stuff in, and six months or a year down the road they just roll up and leave everything and go. I think that’s what everybody’s worried about."

Kalista and Sanders both worked in mariculture at St. Jude. They said they're eager to start the farm as quickly as possible, and they plan to be there for the long term, placing a total of 700 floating cages over five years. That slow process also should help alert boaters, they said.

Oyster farms, like most hard structures placed in water, also attract other fish. Anglers would be encouraged to come explore the farm on their own time and talk to Kalista and Sanders about their operation, they said.

“Our footprint is in no way off limits to the public. We welcome them to come on in," Kalista said. "They can tie off to one of our anchors and fish all day.”

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

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