The Conservation League actively monitors the oyster mariculture industry on our coast. While oystermen have long harvested wild caught oysters or grown clusters in bottom cages, a new industry has emerged that utilizes floating cages. These cages allow farmers to grow what are called “singles” (as opposed to cluster). These singles are more marketable to high end restaurants.
Benefits of mariculture
Currently, five active mariculture operations utilize floating cages in South Carolina. Oysters are filter feeders and have been shown to increase water quality. In addition, oyster farming can take pressure off of wild oyster populations, allowing them to recover in areas where they have been over-harvested.
Recently, homeowners in areas around proposed mariculture operations have expressed concerns about the visual impacts of the industry on our coastline, how mariculture farms impact navigability of tidal creeks, and whether floating cages could entangle wildlife. These concerns are valid; however, to date, only modestly-sized operations have been proposed along South Carolina’s coast and the Department of Natural Resources, the Office of Coastal Resource Management, and Army Corps of Engineers have worked together to implement appropriate restrictions the eliminate or significantly reduce these risks. The Conservation League frequently comments on these permit applications to ensure these farmers will be responsible water users.
Asking the right questions
When commenting on proposed mariculture operations, we critically assess the application. Below are some of the most important questions the Conservation League asks applicants:
- How big is the operation? To date, the largest application covered approximately 7 acres of salt marsh. The larger the operation, the greater our concerns. In some instances we have successfully recommending that a mariculture operation’s size be reduced.
- Where is the operation located? Is it in a highly trafficked waterway and what’s the size of the waterway? What type of water users operate in the area? Is there residential development in the area?
- Are the oysters going to be growing in clean waterways? DNR maintains an interactive map showing locations where mariculture is an appropriate water use.
- Is the operation utilizing a local seed source? We would not support non-native oyster mariculture. Fortunately, a local grower is currently providing seed to all operators in the state.
- Does the grower have a plan to remove mariculture cages in the event of a hurricane or tropical storm? Typically, growers sink their gear during a storm. This has proven effective for local growers during hurricane Matthew and Irma.
- Is the grower required to post a bond? Bonding provides funding that can be used in the event a mariculture operation is abandoned.
- Will the applicant follow best management practices (BMPs)?
We look at mariculture operations in the same way that we assess dock permit applications. Some are more concerning than others and it is always site specific. DNR, OCRM, and the Army Corps have been very conscious of the potential for explosive growth in this industry and have exhibited a commitment to ensuring the industry grows responsibly. If done well, the industry can happily coexist with local residents and water users.
If you have questions about mariculture operations in South Carolina, we’re happy to answer them! Please feel free to reach out at 843.522.1800.