Until the coronavirus halted daily life, oyster growers in Florida had been selling every bivalve they could harvest. There’s been a demand for them, but this method of aquafarming is still unable to match what used to be a thriving wild-caught oyster industry about a decade ago.
I took a boat trip to a new farming site in lower Tampa Bay recently to find out what it takes to crack into this budding industry.
On a clear and breezy Sunday morning, I hopped on a 20-foot skiff with Brian Rosegger of Lost Coast Oyster Company. He and his wife started the small business last year. The young St. Petersburg couple has to fit working on the water with other jobs and a newborn baby.
"We’re still trying to figure it out. We have a lot of things to learn as growers so we’re just hoping to have a bountiful harvest,” he said.
Rosegger hasn’t sold any yet. The goal is to yield thousands of oysters by the summer. Their floating farm is on the southern edge of Tampa Bay in Palmetto.
“Woo! There she is!” he said proudly as he maneuvered the boat through a tight spot and slowed down.
We made it to Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve, completely surrounded by red mangrove trees. Two parallel lines of black mesh bags were bobbing in the current. Rosegger eased the boat between the lines and hooked us in.
“So now we’re going to make some sense of all this stuff,” he said.
Rosegger, along with Chris Powell -- a friend who volunteered to help -- began the heavy lifting. Literally.
They each took turns bending over the side of the boat, using their knees as leverage against the hard boat’s surface.
Then one at a time, they unhooked floating mesh bags from the line.
Once they heaved a few bags onboard, they opened the mouth of the bags to drop the oysters onto a tray sifter.
If they’re really big, near ready for harvest, they go through a mechanical sorter. It’s a spinning metal tube with holes in it for the smaller oysters to fall onto a tray underneath. The bigger ones will tumble forward into a separate tray.
This process determines where the oysters go next, depending on size. If they’ve grown, they graduate into bigger bags with bigger holes. This gives them more room to keep growing.
Then once again, the farmers have to lug the bags onto the water and clip them back onto the floating line.
“Shoot, I’ve got to catch my breath,” Powell said after a few hours of this.
It’s a lot of manual labor to keep growing oysters healthy, and that’s not including the cost of the boat, equipment, and water column lease.
“Right now, you know, it's still just this really expensive science experiment,” said Rosegger. “It's not produced anything tangible. We're just giving it a shot.”
And if it works out, he hopes to harvest 30,000 oysters and sell them for 75 cents apiece.
Aquafarmers, like Rosegger, are all over state waters trying to make this happen.
Portia Sapp, aquaculture director at the Florida Department of Agriculture, said aquafarming is growing quickly.
“There is a lot of demand for oysters, and it's not just Florida,” she said. “It's growing rapidly in other states: Alabama, Mississippi are getting into oyster production, as well.”
Sapp said that in 2019, about 3.5 million pounds of wild oysters were harvested -- about half of what was caught in 2017 because of environmental factors. At the same time, the harvesting of farmed oysters doubled.
Sapp, however, said aquafarming is not yet filling the gap from the heyday of wild oysters.
The Florida Panhandle at one time provided about 10% of the nation's oysters, but the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill combined with over-harvesting destroyed the oyster fisheries by 2012.
Sapp is really excited about new aquaculture oyster farms starting up because they also support neighboring businesses.
"They need cages, they need seed, they need to sell their product to a processor and then that processor is going to sell to hopefully a restaurant in Florida,” she said.
So these oysters boost local economies, and since they’re filter feeders, they also clean the water they’re growing in.
“They’re constantly removing nutrients and materials from the water and providing this ecosystem service for free that normally we require our water treatment plants and things like that to do,” said Sapp. “Especially in Tampa Bay, they can improve water quality and have seagrass come back because the light can now get to those seagrasses and allow photosynthesis to occur. So they're definitely keystone species in the ecosystem and they're really critical.”
Back on Brian Rosegger’s boat, he carefully combs through his oysters in the tray sifter. I asked what motivates him to spend his weekends here.
“Just, you know, this idea that I'm doing something that is part of the solution instead of part of the problem and putting food on somebody's plate,” he said. “The idea of being a farmer is very attractive, but also doing it in a responsible and sustainable manner.”
Lost Coast Oyster Company was planning on selling to restaurants in May, but as of right now, the coronavirus has made their first harvest uncertain.