Overbearing regulations hamper Georgia’s upstart oyster farming industry, critics say

Perry Solomon hands his wife Laura a full bin while harvesting Salt Bomb oysters from their floating oyster farm in the Bull River on Wednesday, January 10, 2024.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/ USA Today Network

Credit: Richard Burkhart/ USA Today Network

Perry Solomon hands his wife Laura a full bin while harvesting Salt Bomb oysters from their floating oyster farm in the Bull River on Wednesday, January 10, 2024.

New research should clear the way for Georgia environmental officials to eliminate a costly regulatory barrier that owners of the first state’s first floating oyster farm insist will be a drag on the upstart industry, advocates say.

Perry and Laura Solomon, owners of Tybee Oyster Company, began harvesting from the initial on-the-water operation on Chatham County's Bull River last month. They were among a half-dozen applicants granted intertidal shellfish leases in late 2021 by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

But more than two years later, Tybee Oyster and another company in Brunswick are the only lessees with operations up and running.

Perry Solomon says he has a good idea why.

Under existing Georgia regulations, oyster harvests must cease when water temperatures reach 81 degrees. The primary reason for the rule is a collection of potentially harmful bacteria called vibrio, which live naturally in coastal Georgia waters and thrive in warm conditions.

For the Solomons, that likely will mean suspending sales from June through September – when demand from restaurants that serve Tybee Oyster’s “Salt Bombs” is highest.

“Restaurants in Georgia don’t stop selling oysters in June, they just stop buying them from Georgia farmers,” Perry Solomon wrote in an email to Georgia DNR earlier this month. "Restaurants are constantly concerned about supply chain disruptions."

And as climate change extends the window for extremely warm waters, that period without income will only grow longer.

"You are asking small family farms that have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment in the last year to stop generating revenue for four months during peak tourist season in coastal Georgia," Solomon wrote. "Sub-tidal growing operations cannot be 'paused' while a harvest ban is in place."

Nor would it have to be paused, say scientists from the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Sea Grant’s Shellfish Research Laboratory, which sold the Solomons 100,000 fingernail-sized “seed,” or baby Eastern oysters, this past summer.

Vibrio bacteria grow rapidly when oysters are exposed during low tide during the heat of summer days.


Credit: Richard Burkhart/ USA Today Network

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Credit: Richard Burkhart/ USA Today Network

But the Solomons raise their crop in 1,200 baskets floating on the Bull River, so the oysters don’t dry during low tide because they remain submerged.

"Our work indicates that oysters can be safely harvested during the summer months when following proper protocols," explained Thomas Bliss, director of the Shellfish Research Laboratory. "The results from that study have been provided to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources as they work to determine how to regulate harvest during the summer from leases located in mariculture zones."

DNR Shellfish and Water Quality Program Manager Dominic Guadagnoli on Tuesday acknowledged the findings, but also confirmed what the Solomons feared: New rules for summer harvests from floating oyster farms won’t be in place until 2025 at the earliest.

Before warm-water harvests are permitted, the DNR and its Law Enforcement Division, along with the Georgia Department of Agriculture, must draft rules that meet National Shellfish Sanitation Program Model Ordinance requirements, Guadagnoli said in an email to the Savannah Morning News.

"These agencies must enact regulations and develop procedures to properly sanction summer harvest, thus ensuring the state will meet its annual (Food and Drug Administration) program audits," he wrote. "This is necessary, regardless of the number of growers ready to implement summer harvest."

Any delay squeezes farmers at the worst possible time, said Perry Solomon.

"Instead of a steady-state year-round relationship, farmers this year will be forced to rebuild their customer base in October and convince lost restaurant accounts why they should switch back to a Georgia oyster,” he insisted.

John Deem covers climate change and the environment in coastal Georgia. He can be reached at jdeem@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Overbearing regulations hamper Georgia’s upstart oyster farming industry, critics say


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