The oyster industry once thrived in Georgia. Collaborative efforts between the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service and other agencies are aimed at rebuilding the foundation for sustainable oyster aquaculture in the state. (Ansley West Rivers)

Catch of the day: A dive into Georgia farmed fish and aquaculture

When temperatures soar above 100 degrees and the desire for heavy food plummets, a bowl of ceviche, a plate of oysters or some cedar-planked salmon hits the spot.

But, as with other foods these days, consumers who want to support healthy oceans and waterways are faced with questions. What creatures of the sea are OK to buy? What’s sustainable? What’s in season? Who is a credible source to fill that craving for crustaceans?

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The Georgia Aquarium offers a seafood pocket guide that is a handy resource for making sustainable choices when ordering at a restaurant or the seafood counter in the grocery store. The guide will tell you what’s best, what’s good and what to avoid, yet it doesn’t get into discussion of “season.” Consumers seem more aware than ever of the growing season for produce, yet our knowledge of fish and seafood cycles hasn’t quite caught up with our mental calendar of when asparagus, peaches or apples are at their peak.

Right now, you can still get wild Columbia River king salmon, which many chefs covet. “It is the king of salmon, in my opinion,” said Ben Barth, chef de cuisine at Atlanta’s Local Three Kitchen & Bar.

But what happens when wild salmon season ends in late summer?

One option is farm-raised fish.

“I have a long-standing rule that I won’t buy farm-raised salmon,” said Local Three chef and partner Chris Hall.

That’s about to change.

Hall and Barth recently sampled farm-raised salmon from Skuna Bay that is reared off the coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. “I was completely blown away by the product,” Hall said. “These folks nailed the flavor and they are farming it sustainably.”

Barth ticked off numerous reasons why he hadn’t been a supporter of farm-raised salmon until eating the Skuna Bay product. “Most farm-raised stuff is raised in pens. The tanks are overcrowded. They are not being fed properly. The feed-to-conversion ratio is not sustainable to us.”

In the case of Skuna Bay salmon, it takes 1 pound of feed to grow each salmon pound, “which is fantastic as far as farm-raised fish goes,” Barth said. He noted that the fish are not overcrowded and that, at any given time, one-third of the population is being allowed to regenerate.

What’s more, Barth said, Skuna Bay salmon is only slighty more expensive than other farm-raised salmon, and it costs half the price of wild salmon — a value that they can pass on to diners at the Northside restaurant.

“As far as an alternative when it’s not salmon season, this is something we are definitely going to be using,” Barth said. Look for Skuna Bay to hit the Local Three menu in late summer.

Skuna Bay is just one example where best practices in aquaculture are enabling eco-minded chefs to jump aboard the farmed fish and seafood bandwagon.

A number of metro Atlanta’s farm-to-table restaurants have found trusted sources for farm-raised trout from North Georgia. Local Three and Kimball House use Bramlett Trout Farms in Suches, while Wrecking Bar gets its supply from Enchanted Springs, tucked away in Morganton.

Chefs are even able to get their hands on local farm-raised sturgeon caviar thanks to a University of Georgia program. The UGA Premium Siberian Sturgeon Caviar is supplied by local distributor Inland Seafood.

UGA is also involved in another exciting development in local aquaculture — oysters. If you’re a regular oyster slurper, you know that you don’t usually see Georgia listed as a place of origin for those half shells on the menu. But collaborative efforts between the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Management Program, the Georgia Department of Agriculture and the Georgia Shellfish Growers Association could bring back an industry that once thrived in the state.

“In the early 1900s, Georgia had a lot of oyster harvest from the wild. But it was all for the canning industry,” explained Tom Bliss, director of UGA’s shellfish laboratory in Savannah.

Among his responsibilities, Bliss oversees an oyster hatchery, now in its second year of operation on Savannah’s Skidaway Island. The goal of the hatchery is to get Georgia back on the oyster map, but this time in the more lucrative single oyster market. (Most oysters in Georgia grow in clumps, or clusters, which are not conducive to the half shell fine dining market.)

“Last year was our learning year,” Bliss said. This summer, production fared much better and Bliss anticipates getting around 500,000 oyster seed (also known as spat) that will then be distributed among 10 growers, who will raise the oysters until they reach a marketable size of at least 2 inches.

One of the growers that Bliss works with is Rafe Rivers of Canewater Farms, near Savannah. Canewater primarily produces organic vegetables. Rivers’ family also owns an organic corn mill in Ellijay. However, with the rising restaurant demand for single oysters and the increase in consumers seeking local seafood, Rivers saw potential in further diversifying his business by becoming an oyster farmer.

While the development is exciting, Rivers noted the labor intensiveness of the operation, the cost of equipment and the loss of seed as he goes through learning curves in growing oysters (this year, he lost 50 percent of what he started with).

“There is such a potential,” he said. “But I’m not sold that it’s financially viable.”

For the moment, Rivers is pushing ahead. This fall, he will bring his first crop to market; some 7,000 to 10,000 single oysters will land in restaurants in Savannah and on St. Simons Island. He doubts he’ll have enough to offer to Atlanta restaurants, though “it would be neat to be on the Kimball House restaurant menu,” he said.

Kimball House partner and shellfish buyer Bryan Rackley also would be pleased to get some Georgia-grown oysters on the menu at the Decatur restaurant.

“I want those guys to really be successful,” Rackley said. “It’s an industry completely missing here in Georgia. It will be an interesting addition to our culinary identity when we have farm-raised oysters readily available.”

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