Shell Game

By Keith Phillips, South Carolina Living

“We’ve got plenty more oysters, so enjoy,” Frank Roberts tells a group of travel writers who are digging into a picnic lunch at Lady’s Island Oyster Farm near Beaufort.

There is the clink of silverware and empty shells on plates, along with murmurs of approval as the diners follow his advice. It’s a beautiful spring day, and from the wooden picnic tables beneath a canopy of live oaks, the guests have a postcard-perfect view of the saltwater marsh. The locally sourced meal, hosted by the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, is intended to give the visiting journalists a literal taste of the Lowcountry, and the plump, raw oysters Roberts calls Coosaw Cups are stealing the show.

While servers keep the iced trays coming, Roberts strolls among the tables sharing the story behind his signature oysters—and how the sustainable mariculture techniques that created them are revolutionizing the state’s shellfish industry.

Made to order

Coosaw Cups are everything raw oysters should be—3 inches long, with consistently deep cups, wide fans, upward shell hinges for easy shucking and generous morsels of meat inside. They have the clean, salty taste of St. Helena Sound, but they weren’t harvested from the local wild oyster beds.

No, that wouldn’t do for Frank Roberts. From the moment these shellfish were conceived 12 months ago, to the time they were harvested, he and his colleagues have carefully managed every stage of their development, essentially hand-crafting their own version of the perfect Lowcountry oyster.

“I’ve grown oysters up and down the coast, and I’ve had them from all across the country,” Roberts says. “This is truly a unique oyster.”

And he isn’t kidding when he says “plenty more.” Roberts operates the only oyster hatchery in South Carolina. Inside his spawning lab, a newly conceived generation of Coosaw Cups larvae are taking shape—about 30 million of them.

Another 3 million microscopic oyster seeds—fully formed juveniles no bigger than grains of sand—are growing up fast in a dockside tank complex called the upweller. And out in the tidal depths of the Coosaw River, there are acres of submerged cages, each filled with 300 to 400 pounds of premium, single oysters nearing harvest-ready perfection.

There are, of course, easier ways to put shellfish on the table. Healthy wild rakes of American Eastern oysters grow abundantly throughout the sound and all along the S.C. coast. During the September-to-April season known as the “R” months, Roberts still occasionally harvests clusters of wild oysters from the intertidal zone between the pluff mud and brilliant green Spartina grass of the surrounding marshes. He happily supplies, and even hosts, his share of the traditional fall oyster roasts that are so deeply engrained in South Carolina culture.

But Roberts is also one of a growing number of oystermen using mariculture techniques to create a new segment of the shellfish industry—sustainable, farm-raised single oysters with unique characteristics, brand names and menu-friendly backstories. These are the oysters in demand by chefs, foodies and top raw bars, says Julie Davis, a marine resources extension specialist with the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium.

“We’re immersed in this renaissance of raw bars and the farm-to-table movement,” she says. “People want to know where their food comes from and be able to taste where their food comes from.”

Oyster tasting—sampling mixed platters of shellfish from different farms, waterways and states—is a popular culinary trend, and only through mariculture can S.C. harvesters hope to keep up with demand for premium single oysters sold under brand names like Charleston Salts and May River Cups.

“If you go to an oyster bar, you see a whole listing of these different oysters by name,” she says. “This is not a commodity product. Every oyster tastes different, because it takes on the taste of the body of water that it’s grown in.”

“The demand is huge,” she continues. “I think we’re only scraping the surface with what our industry is producing right now. At this point in time, you really can sell all that you grow.”

Semper Fi

The mariculture techniques Roberts and other South Carolina oyster farmers use aren’t new; they’re just new to South Carolina. Refining them to suit local waters takes a scientific mind, a talent for logistics, a lifetime of oystering know-how and the never-quit mindset of a U.S. Marine—Frank Roberts, in other words.

“My family has been on the Chesapeake since 1697,” he says. “That’s where I first learned about oysters, at my grandfather’s farm. I’ve been interested in it ever since.”

Roberts joined the Marine Corps at age 18. When he arrived at Parris Island for boot camp, he saw the enormous potential for oystering in the salt marshes of the Lowcountry. “The few times I was able to look around, I saw the estuaries here and thought, ‘This place is amazing,’ ” he says. “It was always on my mind to get back here.”

After the Marines, Roberts made a career in law enforcement with the New Haven Police Department in Connecticut and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He worked nights, mostly, leaving his days free to harvest oysters and study mariculture. When he retired to Beaufort 18 years ago to make oystering a full-time occupation, he began experimenting with hatchery techniques in his garage to perfect his spawn-to-harvest process.

“Every area is unique,” Roberts says. “What works in a Virginia hatchery or a Louisiana hatchery may not work here. You have to figure out what works for your area.”

In the mood

What works at Lady’s Island Oyster Farm starts with Roberts playing matchmaker to the best local oysters he’s collected and nurtured over the years, including some massive specimens that measure 7 inches in length. “It’s just like breeding any animal,” he says. “We look for certain characteristics.”

To breed a new generation of oysters, Roberts places the best male and female specimens in a tank that is the bivalve equivalent of a honeymoon suite. When the water conditions are just right, the oyster hormones kick in and a spawning frenzy begins.

Observing water samples under the microscope, “you can actually see the sperm penetrating the eggs,” he says. “About an hour after that, you start seeing cell division. It’s amazing to watch.”

The newly formed larvae are transferred to growing tanks, each holding about 250 gallons of carefully filtered salt water. For the next 20 days, Roberts watches, waits and frets over his microscopic charges, meticulously monitoring and adjusting the water quality and providing measured amounts of microalgae as food. “We want that seawater to be as clean as it can be—no predators, no competitors,” he says.

Throughout the process, Roberts watches for the development of black dots on the larvae.

“Once they get what we call an eye—it looks like someone took an ink pen and dotted it—that means they’re getting ready to set,” he says. “In the wild, that’s when they swim down from the water column and look for an oyster shell rake to attach to.”

In place of shell rakes, Roberts provides silos, white plastic buckets with mesh bottoms and a layer of oyster shell crushed to a precise size. Only about 15 percent of the original larvae will become oyster seed, but that still leaves millions for Roberts to sell to other oyster farmers, with plenty left over for his own farming operation.

One plate of oysters coming right up

The seeds Roberts keeps for himself spend the next month in the upweller tanks getting a jump start on their development with a steady flow of salt water pumped in from McCalleys Creek. To show his visitors the results of the breeding work, he lifts one of the silos containing 25,000 or so newly settled oysters. Allowing the water to drain through the bottom, he presses his index finger against the mesh and holds out his hand.

Look closely. The half-dozen grains stuck to his fingertip are, in fact, a half-dozen fully formed juvenile oysters. “At this point, we should have no more than 10 percent mortality,” Roberts says, meaning the seeds on the tip of his finger today likely will be on somebody’s plate in 11 months’ time.

About every other week, Roberts and his crew divide the rapidly developing oysters and place them in new silos. “It’s like popcorn,” he says. “As they’re growing, we have to continue to spread them around to reduce density.”

When the oysters are big enough, Roberts and his crew scoop them into mesh bags, then place the bags in submerged metal pens in the salt creek. As they grow, the oysters will be moved twice more, first to 12 acres of nursery pens in Half Moon Creek and finally to 16 acres of finishing pens in the Coosaw River on the edge of St. Helena Sound.

The taste of an oyster is determined by its environment, and with no freshwater rivers carrying upstream runoff, St. Helena Sound flavors his oysters with a steady influx of seawater from the Atlantic Ocean. That gives his shellfish “a super briny start, a sweet middle and a clean finish,” Roberts says.

Market conditions

Unique tastes, local sourcing and consistent quality are three of the reasons chefs and oyster aficionados can’t get enough maricultured shellfish, says Brad Young, managing partner of Bluffton’s May River Oyster Company.

“The chefs love it. They call it ‘river to restaurant,’ ” he says of his farm-raised May River Cups. “Oysters are coming in right from the May River. They’ll have guests out on dock, and they know our guys are bringing in the fresh oysters. My gosh, they go crazy.”

One of Roberts’ best clients is chef Mike Lata, owner of The Ordinary, Charleston’s premier raw bar. Lata buys an exclusive line of premium singles called Phat Lady’s, which are usually listed at the top of the oyster menu along with Caper’s Blades, wild oysters harvested near McClellanville, chiseled into singles and finished using mariculture techniques.

“Those two oysters are a great side-by-side comparison to show how different oysters can be in our area,” Lata says. “It couldn’t get any better. When you talk about sea to table, the thing that is most important is the relationship with the producer.”

The one glitch in that relationship is a matter of unfortunate timing, Young says. State regulations, written with wild oyster stocks in mind, prohibit harvest from May through August. Local oystermen are locked out of supplying the state’s restaurants during the summer tourist season when demand soars. Chefs have no choice but to import shellfish from Louisiana and Virginia.

“Our chefs come to us and say, ‘When are you going to cut us off this year?’” Young says. “They’re disappointed, because they are wanting local, local, local.”

Davis says state law limits wild oyster harvesting to the traditional “R” months for two good reasons. During the summer, wild bivalves spend more energy reproducing than growing, so meat quality diminishes. But the bigger problem is naturally occurring Vibrio bacteria. Eating raw oysters with a high bacteria load can cause severe illness and even death in those with compromised immune systems.

Most wild oyster grounds in South Carolina are intertidal, exposing the shellfish at low tide. Fueled by the heat of a sweltering summer day, Vibrio bacteria trapped in the closed shells can bloom out of control. Mariculture oysters, on the other hand, stay submerged 24 hours a day.

“As long as the oyster is open and pumping, it’s flushing out that bacteria,” Davis says. “With mariculture, we’re able to keep the animal continuously submerged, so that helps to reduce the risk of illness.”

Game changer

In January, the Department of Health and Environmental Control approved changes to state regulations that would allow summer harvest of mariculture oysters, so long as producers follow strict controls on delivery time and temperatures. Under the proposed revisions, summer harvest of wild oysters would remain prohibited. As this story went to press, the new regulations were under review by the Department of Natural Resources and awaiting final adoption by the legislature.

Roberts anticipates a rapid expansion of the mariculture shellfish industry in South Carolina if the regulations pass.

“We’ll more than double our business,” he predicts. “Charleston sells more oysters during the summer than they do during the winter, because of all the tourists coming from up North. We’re making efforts to double the output of the hatchery, we’re bringing on more personnel and we’re going to roll with it.”

 

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