It's time for a discussion about the oyster industry in South Carolina 

Call of the Wild

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Last week's City Paper cover story, "Caged In," by Mary Scott Hardaway, described some of the growing pains of South Carolina's oyster industry. I feel, however, there were a few missing dimensions that deserve to be highlighted. These holes are no fault of the author's. Instead, what the piece highlights is our oversimplified read, by all of us, on the nuances of our state's oyster industry — at best, an ignorance toward the unintended consequences of the growth of particular components of the industry, and at worst, an avoidance or a refusal to apply deeper, more critical considerations to the industry's changing landscape.

In the spring of 2017, just as South Carolina's wild oyster season was coming to an end, the state legislature passed amendments to state shellfish regulations "to provide specific technical requirements regarding the harvesting and handling of ... maricultured triploid oysters during the summer months." From that point forward, South Carolina's oyster season (that is to say, triploid oyster season) would be open year-round.

The cultivation of triploid oysters is rooted in efficiency. They are sterile by design. During summer months, when naturally occurring diploid oysters are devoting their energies to spawning (ensuring the propagation of the oyster population), triploids are growing, devoting energy to meat production, resulting, in a bigger oyster in less time. The triploid's speed-to-market-advantage is most noticeable in warmer water, which creates a longer spawning season.

Triploids are produced through genetic manipulation, a technique that has been protected under patent by a New Jersey company which "develops, acquires, and markets genetic and breeding technologies for shellfish aquaculture." (See patent number 5,824,841 for a more detailed, technical description of the processes involved with the production of triploids.)

The amendment to South Carolina's shellfish regulations in 2017 was offered as a way to create a more competitive oyster industry. So the argument went, with our wild oyster season only lasting between Oct. 1 and May 15, South Carolina restaurants would have to supplement their oyster supply from other states during those summer months. That's nearly 40 percent of the calendar year when S.C. oysters could not be consumed.

As the state's culinary scene grew, it meant we were missing out on a bigger and bigger piece of the pie. Logic, it seems, would suggest the solution exists in the creation of a 12-month production cycle, guaranteeing constant output to the market. This, after all, is economic progress.

So, by 2017, the mariculture floodgates were fully open, attracting a steady growth of interest toward this relatively new corner of the industry, interest that still grows steadily, built around a process that blocks an animal's physiological functions for the sake of production.

I've watched with wonder as the conversation around food has turned toward seasonality, prioritizing freshness and flavor over year-round availability, seemingly valuing the natural scarcity of a particular crop. Charleston in particular seems to have built its culinary identity in recent years on this ethos, and so too have many leaders within our agricultural and culinary community.

So, why then would we hold the oyster to a different standard?

The difference may seem philosophical on its surface, but at its core, it is deeply practical. After all, respecting seasonality and celebrating a plant or animal's finite ripeness forces us to not only consider the limits of nature, but to embrace them. Doing so encourages us to celebrate what is unique rather than what is ubiquitous.

Further, in a state where 52 percent of our wild oyster-producing tidelands are under management by private commercial oystermen, it seems the most effective way to strengthen the state of our oyster industry (and our wild oyster beds) is to devote attention to the culture of management governing the quality and quantity of our output. This is where we've lost our way.

This wasn't always the case. Conservative estimates show that South Carolina's wild oyster beds once produced sustained annual supplies five-times greater than what has been produced since the 1980s. Much of that has to do with market demand and how our oysters were historically consumed (canned versus served on the half-shell). But I would venture to say that that decline is rooted in having forgotten the unique and mutually beneficial methods of husbandry that drove the industry for decades.

Besides, production of single, wild, premium oysters has a rich, nearly 200-year history in South Carolina. In 1849, David Truesdell, a restaurateur and Charleston's first oyster farmer, was praised as one "who can convert a raccoon oyster into a BluePointer, or a Shrewsbury." The singles produced by Thomas Legare Swinton at his oyster farm behind Isle of Palms were celebrated in mid-19th century advertising.

I offer this all not to find fault with those who are using triploid technology as the basis of their operations, nor with the markets that support them — since this nuance has yet to surface in the conscience of our industry — but I offer these points as matters of fact, so we can begin to have a more meaningful conversation about the growth of South Carolina's oyster industry. Where do we want to allocate our talent and resources? What do we value most? In what direction do we want to grow, and why?

Cyrus Buffum is an environmental advocate and a commercial oysterman based in Charleston.


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