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Oyster farms in South Carolina are providing numerous benefits to the Lowcountry: both economically and environmentally. With a total of four farms using cutting-edge floating mariculture methods, they are also providing a creek-to-table product to our local restaurants giving patrons a true taste of the Palmetto State. This document outlines the benefits, processes, and logistics of these farms.

Oyster farms in Charleston reported to SCDNR that $645,423 of oysters were sold to local restaurants in 2018. Multiply this by roughly $3.25 per oyster charged in restaurants, and this amounts to an additional 2 million dollars that stay in the local economy rather than leaving the area.

Including an 11% tax on restaurant sales (6% State, 3% County, 2% City), farmed oysters provide the local governments with another approximate $230,000 in revenue.
Three of the largest oyster-selling restaurants in Charleston have reported sales totaling $1,040,000 from local oysters in 2018. This alone would contribute $114,400 in taxes.Thousands of dollars have been collected by SDNR through the application and permitting processes. On average, individuals spend $10,000 (non-refundable) on the permitting process. Of the four farms in South Carolina, they have reported employing 39 individuals (12 full time, 27 contractors).

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to further measure the effect of the oyster farms on support industries such as oyster recycling, hatcheries, seed, construction, farm tours, restaurant shuckers, boats, locally sourced equipment and other hidden impacts.
Mariculture is not a brand new industry to the Palmetto State. The first oyster farm was permitted in 1840 behind Sullivans Island. The first floating farm was permitted in 2013 to Ladys Island Oyster Company in Beaufort County. Dozens of environmental studies have been completed showing the direct benefits of mariculture to estuarine waterways (Cerco, 2015; Walters, 2013; DeVoe, 1997; Dexter & Morales-Alamo, 1970).

According to rough calculations, $645,423 worth of reported oysters sold in 2018 at an estimated average of $ 0.85/oyster would result in 759,321 oysters in the water prior to this. With one oyster filtering on average up to fifty gallons/day, a conservative 12.5 billion gallons of water were filtered in our State. This doesn’t even include the 7 million oysters that were purchased as seed in 2018, which could result in an additional 127.8 billion gallons of water being filtered.

On top of providing extensive habitat and filtration systems in the Lowcountry’s estuaries, farmed oysters can increase the wild population while providing an alternative option that can meet market demand. The floating cages and the oysters inside provide an opportune landing site for wild spat in the summer months. As the cages are maintained and cleaned, the wild oysters are collected and dispersed throughout the cultured beds. If the farmed oyster is also reproducing, it too will release spat into the water column and further boost the oyster
population. Culture methods prior to floating cages were a combination of chipping and culling large “selects” from clusters and strengthening them in bottom cages for a short period of time before selling to restaurants. This has been practiced in the Lowcountry for over a century, but does not produce an oyster that can compete with a northern single oyster, and sales must be completed before the summer months. While this practice can be done sustainably, the diminishing numbers of the wild resource has made this difficult, resulting in either restaurants ordering out of state oysters, or wild oysters being cultured at an unsustainable rate. Thus, using innovative and sustainable floating cages has provided restaurants with the product they demand while leaving the wild resource in place to continue enhancing Lowcountry estuaries.
Mariculture also provides extensive benefits to marine life in the Lowcountry. The floating cages used to raise the oysters encourage and attract wildlife such as crabs, fin fish, lobsters, octopi, dolphin, juvenile fish, shrimp, and inshore and offshore fish like sea bass and grouper (NOAA, 2019). Marine life flock to these oyster cages for shelter and feed off of the ecological webb created by these cages.

Not too long ago, the Chesapeake Bay and Pacific Northwest’s oyster populations were almost completely eradicated by disease and overfishing, (NOAA, 2019). What both of those regions realized too late is that the cost and time required to restore a wild oyster population goes up dramatically after the oysters are wiped out. It has taken the Pacific Northwest nearly 40 years to start to see significant results of replenishing their wild oyster population (Puget Sound Institute, 2019).

Unfortunately, South Carolina is currently flirting with the same outcome as those two famous oyster regions. All it takes is one major event, like a hurricane or disease outbreak, to completely wipe out the population leading to decades of expensive rebuilding. That is why it is
crucial to practice preventative restoration rather than the forced restoration that happens after the damage is done.

Currently, there are four mariculture farms in the state. This cutting-edge technique was introduced to the state in 2013 when the first permit was granted. Lady Island Oyster Company, Lowcountry Oyster Company, Barrier Island Oyster Company, and May River Oyster Company take up a total of 35 acres of waterways. In comparison, the number of private docks on the Stono River take up 110+ acres of waterways.

The Permitting process


The permitting process for mariculture farms goes through three government agencies before a permit and lease is granted: SCDNR, OCRM, and the Army Corps of Engineers. The process, from start to finish, takes approximately two years. Out of pocket expenses to go through the permitting process is anywhere from eight to ten thousand dollars which is non-refundable even if the permit is not issued. The process is as follows: 

  1. Request a joint shellfish mariculture application package from SCDNR. 
  2. It is highly recommended that you consult with SCDNR Office of Shellfish Management before completing your application package. Call (843) 953-0126 to schedule a consultation. 
  3. Complete the application and all required attachments. 
  4. Submit application with $25 non-refundable application fee to SCDNR. 
  5. Provide any additional information that SCDNR may request upon review of your application materials. 
  6. After initial approval, which includes determination of eligibility and availability of the proposed location, SCDNR will send your application package to OCRM and USACE. 
  7. If your proposal qualifies for general permits from OCRM and USACE, SCDNR will notify you of conditional approval. Once SCDNR grants conditional approval you will be required to place a classified ad for three weeks in a paper of general circulation in your county. After the advertising period, provide proof of advertising to SCDNR Marine Permitting office. This advertising also satisfies the OCRM advertising requirement. Do not initiate this advertising until instructed by SCDNR. 
  8. If your proposal does not qualify for general permits from OCRM and/or USACE you will be notified by those agencies. You will have the option for applying for individual permits from those agencies. Individual permits have additional fees and require more information. Applicants may wish to schedule an interagency meeting to discuss the permit and the permit requirements before proceeding. 
  9. SCDNR will not issue your final mariculture permit until it receives verification that you have been granted permits from OCRM and USACE, as well as completing the advertising requirement. When you receive your approval from USACE and OCRM, please call DNR to make an appointment to complete the permitting process. 
  10. SCDNR will create a permit map delineating your mariculture permit area. Your annual rent will be based upon the acreage of the permit area at $5/acre. The minimum billable acreage is 0.5 acres. You may have an approved permit smaller than this but it will be billed at 0.5 acres. The prorated first year’s rent must be received prior to issuing the permit. 
  11. If you qualify for general permits you may be able to complete the permitting process in about two months. If your proposal requires individual permits, the permitting process will take considerably longer, possibly 9-12 months.

In conclusion, South Carolina’s mariculture farms provide huge benefits to our state, all the while only taking up 35 acres of waterways. Oyster farming is the most regulated method of farming in the world. Any more regulations posed by the state legislature would shut out the stewards of our waterways.