- Georgia's Wild Oyster Harvest
Georgia's coastline is roughly a hundred miles long, pegged at the north by the Savannah River and to the south by the St. Mary's. A series of barrier and coastal islands marks its length and protects an essential and pristine estuary from Atlantic waves. Between mainland bluffs and barrier islands is a salt marsh, the second largest in the United States, a maze where rivers and creeks skirt islets of mud and sand.
Oysters thrive in such an estuary. These bivalve mollusks are ugly creatures. They grow in clusters and have razor-sharp edges. They stretch heavenward like spires on a devilish cathedral. They're as wild as their habitat. Restaurants rarely sell such unruly oysters. Riverside roasts, where oysters are steamed over fire, then shucked gleefully by eaters gathered around newspaper-covered tables, are their more common milieu.
In the early 1900s, decades before the rise of the half-shell craze at urban raw bars, Georgia dominated the oyster industry in the United States. Back then, consumers ate tinned oysters by the ton. Canneries where freshly-harvested oysters were shucked and steam-sealed into aluminum, and the low-slung sloops that dragged oysters from marsh to shore, provided hundreds of jobs in coastal communities. After World War II, industry growth ebbed. By the 1980s, oystering in Georgia had all but stopped as consumer tastes changed, Asian competition muscled in, and a cheap workforce jumped skiff for dependable wages in city trades. Only a handful of dedicated oystermen and their faithful but few customers endured.
The rise of aquaculture—scientific shellfish farming—has revived long dormant oyster fisheries in Virginia, Alabama, the Northeast, and the West Coast in the last twenty years. But, until very recently, innovation had left Georgia behind. Change is coming slowly to this state. [End Page 68]
André Gallant is a journalist based in Athens, Georgia. He teaches at the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and publishes Crop Stories, a literary journal critically exploring agriculture in the South. Learn more at www.andre-gallant.com.
The following photographs were taken between 2014 and 2016 on oystering boats with veteran shellfishermen and trailing after scientists attempting to make aquaculture viable in the marshes. I document the laborious process of harvesting wild oysters in Georgia, as well as ongoing efforts to kickstart a modernized industry, in A High Low Tide: The Revival of a Southern Oyster, to be published by the University of Georgia Press in 2019.
[End Page 69]
[End Page 70]
[End Page 71]
[End Page 72]
[End Page 73]