Charleston Oyster Farm: Dive into Sustainable Seafood
There's a joke that that says, "Bold was the first man who tried an oyster." But let's be honest, that should actually say, "Brilliant was the first man who tried an oyster."
I am an addict. Raw, steamed, fried, or in a shooter, you can send them all my way! The best part, as I've recently learned?
Eating farmed oysters is actually good for the planet.
This is awesome news, right? Something we're cultivating and consuming is actually helping IMPROVE our environment.
And since an estimated 85% of wild oyster reefs on planet earth have already been lost...
Food matters. Your choice matters.
And Caitlyn, Tom, and Pete of Charleston Oyster Farms know that better than most.
I got the chance to Q&A these sustainable oyster farmers and check out Charleston Oyster Farm for myself the other day, and even ate an oyster right there on the water... and it was absolutely delicious. Life is good, y'all.
Charleston Oyster Farm: You mean besides being the most delicious little treat your mouth will ever have?
Well, it all started in college. Peter Bierce (co-owner) and I (Caitlyn Mayer) studied Geology together at CofC, and while we all wanted environmental jobs, almost all our friends ended up getting hired by oil companies. However, Peter and I were too stubborn.
We were sure we could find a way to make money while saving the world, so we spent the next couple years in search of a geologic/environmental life (not job).
Peter was working for SCDNR with the SCORE program, helping replenish and rebuild the oyster beds around the SC coast to boost habitats and prevent shoreline erosion. From there, Peter moved up to SC Shellfish Mariculture Manager, where he learned about oyster farming and how beneficial it is for the environment. He loved his job, but saw the need for local oysters. He got his twin brother Tom Bierce (who studied marine geology and also wanted to save the world… twin thing?) to fall in love with oysters as well. Eventually, Peter left his job with the State and joined his brother in the quest for starting the first oyster farm in Charleston! While all this was going on, I went back to school and studied water quality and environmental science, so obviously I joined forces upon graduation!
With more and more restaurants opening up and the demand for local increasing, it just made sense to be proactive so SC didn’t end up like all the northern states (with no wild oysters anymore from over-harvest).
We were all so passionate about finding a life that could make the world a better place, and one that wasn’t just a job. Plus, they are the closest things to rocks.
What makes your business sustainable?
Charleston Oyster Farm: Oyster farming is the only kind of farming that enhances the environment in every aspect.
Not only do the oysters we grow filter the water, provide protection for smaller aquatic life, and increase habitat, they decrease the stresses posed on wild oyster populations.
Wild oysters in SC grow on each other, because that’s the hardest surface in the marshes. Because they grow up, and have strength in numbers, they don’t have strong shells. When the big “selects” are picked and sold to restaurants without being properly cultivated, shells break and the oyster gets thrown out, meanwhile there are less and less big oysters holding the shorelines in place.
Farmed oysters can grow faster than wild, as they have more consistent conditions to grow in and less competition, and their shells are much stronger so they don’t break when served in restaurants. And as if that wasn’t great enough, we are fortunate enough to be able farm our oysters minutes from downtown Charleston.
Unlike most farms, we are able to process our oysters on the water (partly because we are such a small farm), which means all the bi-catch (animals living in the cages) are released back into the environment, and we don’t have to waste as much freshwater when rinsing. Because we are so close to downtown restaurants, we don’t have to use up energy and ice storing oysters or as much gas driving them around, giving us a marsh to table approach!
And why is it important for Charlestonians (and everyone else) to eat local oysters?
Charleston Oyster Farm: Eating locally farmed oysters is important because it not only helps support oyster farms (boosting the local environment), it boosts the local economy and decreases reliance on imported seafood and stresses on wild oyster populations. Plus, they are the saltiest oysters you’ll ever have!
Describe the flavor profile of your oysters in 5 words.
Charleston Oyster Farm: Salty pow, buttery finish, wow.
What’s the best part of oyster farming?
Charleston Oyster Farm: Knowing that what you are farming is making the world a better place, and getting to eat as many oysters as we want!
What’s your least favorite part of oyster farming?
Charleston Oyster Farm: Working in an area that’s slow to change and new ideas. We’ve been trying to get permits for floating cages (what almost all oyster farms use) because they are better for the oysters, and are more viable in our waterways, but we’ve had a lot of pushback from government agencies and local citizens that don’t want to look at an oyster farm, so currently we can’t keep up with market demand and the wild oysters continue to be harvested for singles.
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What is your biggest environmental concern around the Lowcountry?
Charleston Oyster Farm: Development.
More and more people are moving to Charleston, and these mouths want local oysters.
As the wild populations are consumed, there will be less oysters to stabilize the shorelines, which means less stabilization for all the new developments. The new development also means more and more flooding will occur, which will run off into our rivers and streams. If we are not careful, pollution and bacteria from runoff could kill the oyster populations, and we won’t have a natural way to hold shorelines together, protect smaller aquatic species, or filter all the runoff entering the estuaries. We truly believe that oysters are a key ingredient for Charleston’s future. We need oyster farms, not just for food, but to ensure the success of wild oyster populations, thus ensuring the success of Charleston for future generations to come.