Georgia wants to rekindle its relationship with that briny bivalve, the oyster.

Only this time, the goal is to grow an oyster industry from seeds instead of plucking them from the wild.

Charlie Phillips holds a handful of “clam seeds” that will be placed in nearby waters. In a few months, he hopes to be seeding oysters. (Bert Roughton/The Current)

In the early part of the 20th Century, Georgia helped cater to America’s hearty appetite for canned oysters. The state was one of the best in the country, shucking about eight million pounds of wild oyster a year for processing at a record 13 canneries.

But the industry collapsed by the 1940s from what reports say was a combination of overharvesting, fishery mismanagement, and a decreasing demand for canned oysters.

Most of coastal Georgia’s shucking houses shut down by the 1960s. 

For more than a decade, Georgians on the coast and in the Capitol have talked about another economic oyster heyday, capitalizing on shifting tastes from canned oysters to oysters on the half-shell, or single oysters.

From Maine to Florida, states on the Eastern Coast rely on aquaculture as a mainstay for the economy. Shellfish growers who use cages and bags to raise oysters from seed in waters along their shores, a smelly and hard job that nets more than $80 million a year before the COVID-19 pandemic, said Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association.

Delaware and Texas are two of the latest states to enter the industry that caters mostly to raw bars and upscale restaurants. Most sell only farm-raised oysters, which are round and cupped shape from being raised and tumbled in cages.

Officials with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources expect the state’s first oyster farming operations to crank up by Fall 2021, with raw bars and restaurants dishing up their harvests 12 months to 18 months later.

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2019 that was effective in March of this year and legalizes growing oysters from seed along the coast in baskets, cages, or bags above the ocean bottom. In anticipation of the law change, the state opened an oyster hatchery on Skidaway Island near Savannah that has produced millions of oyster babies, also known as spat.

The state also has conducted a pilot with 10 shellfish farmers to raise oysters in bottom cages in the intertidal waters off the coast, the point where high and low tides meet. Only one of the 10 stuck it out.

“The rest of them for different reasons – some financial – didn’t continue with the gear and the work,” said Dominic Guadagnoli with DNR’s Coastal Resource Division’s Shellfish and Water Quality Program, noting this confirmed that floating gear, which keeps the oysters near the water surface, may be farmers on the coast’s best option.