A Shucking Shortage: Why The Rules Are The Rules

Photo by Purestock/Purestock / Getty Images

Photo by Purestock/Purestock / Getty Images

Updated: February 5, 2015

Why is it so hard to find local oysters in South Carolina and Georgia?

After a holiday-fueled hiatus from most things oyster related, I finally dug back into some oyster research, mostly just planning my next excursion down to the Georgia coast.

Among many interesting bivalve reads, I scanned this November article from the Charleston City Paper about an oyster shortage among that city's famed oyster roasts. South Carolina's oysters are governed much like Georgia's, so what the story reports about size limits making local oysters often unavailable is familiar to the fellas that I'm interviewing (or have interviewed) for my book. 

The limit on what size of oyster can be harvested is three inches. South Carolina doesn't always have a size limit, as the story says, but they're being a little extra careful this year. Too much rain and salinity problems took out some oyster beds last year, so SC's Natural Resources folks are watching bed health closely this year, hence the size limit. 

Photo by bjones27/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by bjones27/iStock / Getty Images

If you link through to the article, you'll note that in SC, just as it is in Georgia, marsh or beachside oyster roasts usually feature Gulf of Mexico bivalves. One reason for that is the product, a wild animal essentially, is in short supply.

I've interviewed fishermen who say that locals, or tourists vacationing at the coast, don't really care where the oysters come from. For many years, folks buying a sack of oysters expected, and wanted, to be slurping Gulf oysters, they said. Only recently have local oysters been a more frequent request.

The small supply is caused by regulations, in a small part, but mostly the demand is so strong and oyster harvesters only answer the phone calls of their long-time customers, not strangers. Real smart oystermen, like Clammer Dave in South Carolina, serve the top-dollar-paying, hip restaurant world first.

Another big reason both states have a smaller wild oyster harvest is the smart "cull in place" rule. Harvesters have to cull oysters down from giant crags to manageable clumps or single oyster out in the marsh, on the oyster bed. This way, any casts off go back directly to the bed and can continue to live. Otherwise, harvesters would bring huge bags of oysters back to the dock, cull dockside, and likely not return discarded oysters back to the marsh where they may still thrive. They have to be efficient in the field,a nd the extra care required means it takes longer to cull. Therefore, fewer oysters come back to the dock. The numbers they're able to sell are fewer, but the marsh lives on.

Here in Georgia, the size limit has been changed to allow for 2 inch oysters, a move to help usher in new aquaculture methods and harvest oysters better suited for half-shell service. Restaurants, the biggest buyers of farmed oysters, want smaller, boutique oysters with deep cups. 

I'm heading down to the DNR offices next week to discuss these very things. Will report back later.