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South Carolina Oyster Grower Participates in Capitol Hill Briefing on Sea Grant’s Impact on Aquaculture

Jun 19, 2017 | News

The owner of a Beaufort County oyster company explained at a Capitol Hill briefing how the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium helped spark growth in shellfish aquaculture in the state.

Frank Roberts of Lady’s Island Oyster joined aquaculturists from California, Maine, Michigan and Mississippi on a panel entitled “Aquaculture in the United States: Enhancing Growth of the Domestic Industry.” The briefing on June 13 was sponsored by Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Sea Grant College Program (NSGCP) has backed aquaculture research and development for more than 50 years. From 2012-2015, NSGCP funded $26 million in aquaculture projects. An additional $50 to $100 million research and development investment in the industry is planned during the next decade.

The United States imports a great majority of the seafood it consumes, creating an annual seafood trade deficit exceeding $12 billion. The development of the U.S. aquaculture industry is imperative to reduce that imbalance.

In South Carolina, Roberts is among the growing number of oyster culturists who benefit from the Consortium’s investments in research and technical education.

Roberts’ family has a long history of oyster harvesting in the Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound. He was introduced to the South Carolina Lowcountry as a Marine Corps recruit at Parris Island in 1981. He returned to the area in the early 2000s and founded Lady’s Island Oyster in 2007 on the Coosaw and Whale Branch rivers.

The growth of the oyster industry in South Carolina faced a hurdle in the spring of 2014 when, amid concerns over the potential for disease transfer, the state introduced a moratorium on oyster seed transfer from all points north of South Carolina. With the Consortium’s help, resource managers were able to identify alternative sources of larvae that would meet import requirements. To assist the industry in responding to the moratorium, the Consortium provided local hatcheries and nurseries with the knowledge and tools needed to spawn and raise South Carolina oyster larvae and seed.

Roberts stepped up to meet the demands of this growing industry by starting a hatchery.

Frank Roberts examines seed oysters in a barrel at his Lady’s Island Oyster facility in Beaufort County. Photo by Joey Holleman, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium.

“It was clear that myself and several other growers were going to be out of business if our industry did not have a reliable in-state seed source,” Roberts says. “This meant building a hatchery; a daunting task. Sea Grant was the first place our industry looked for help. Now, three years later, thanks to science-based technologies and techniques learned from Sea Grant, we are realizing our long-term goals can be achieved. ”

Oyster mariculture involves growing hatchery-reared, single-set oysters to harvest size (roughly three inches) in mesh containers raised off the sea floor.  Consortium efforts have helped growers refine grow-out practices using floating gear, allowing them to grow a better oyster faster and cheaper.

Consortium-supported research has also introduced growers to the benefits of growing spawnless, or triploid, oysters as a means of providing a consistent meat yield during warmer months of the year. The market for premium single oysters cultivated using this method is strong thanks to the growing reputations of Charleston and other southern cities as culinary destinations.

Roberts said after three years of building his seed line, he has orders for nearly three million seed in 2017. And now the state has 16 oyster growers, with 10 more seeking permits.

“That’s real money, real jobs,” Roberts says.

Efforts to strengthen the oyster industry in South Carolina continue Sea Grant’s long history of connecting seafood producers with the latest science and most practical technologies to enhance their businesses, fostering prosperity for both the industry and related businesses in rural coastal communities.