Tallahassee Community College brought in a panel of experts Monday to discuss its oyster farming project in Wakulla County.

The afternoon panel discussion at the Wakulla Environmental Institute focused on the benefits oysters bring to local waterways. About 50 people, including elected officials, business people and former students who now own their oyster-harvesting businesses, made up the audience.

Attributes of oysters include the fact they eat by intaking large volumes of water through their bodies, and as they remove algae, they help cleanse bodies of water. One oyster may filter up to 50 gallons of water daily.

TCC President Jim Murdaugh said the college, following discussions with Wakulla residents, decided to create the WEI to help promote the region’s natural characteristics and to help spur an economic turnaround in a community where many depend on the seafood industry for a living.

Among the panelists were: William Walton, assistant professor, Auburn University’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences; Tim Moore, vice president for research, Florida A&M University;  Charles Jagoe, distinguished professor, Environmental Cooperative Science Center, Florida A&M; and Huiping Yang, assistant professor on Molluscan Shellfish Aquaculture and Restoration, University of Florida.

Walton said he believe that oyster farming operations, such as the one in Wakulla County, are going to continue to open up throughout the southeast, including Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina.

One benefit is that oyster farms also attract fish, which helps make them important to people relying on the seafood industry. Secondly, growing oysters in specific regions should lead to “branding” or better marketing opportunities.

“This oyster farming is to create jobs,” he said. “They are going to vary, depending on where they came from.” For instance, he said, oysters harvested in Wakulla could be marketed differently from oysters grown in Apalachicola Bay or Mobile Bay.

Jagoe said the oyster operation has helped offer a research opportunity for his students. FAMU’s Environmental Cooperative Science Center was founded in 2001 and funded by grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The center, which recently learned it has been awarded a new $15-million grant over five years from NOAA, soon will change its name to the Center for Coastal and Marine Ecosystems.

The center provides training in policy review, marine and social issues and studies in water quality, he said.

“Students are studying water quality and the impact of oyster aquaculture,” he said. “One graduate student is looking into nitrogen removal by oyster aquaculture.

“The long-term goal is to better understand the systems, and by that I mean the coastal and human systems and how aquaculture influences water quality.”

The forum was held a few hours before Wakulla Environmental Institute’s third class in oyster harvesting was to begin.

Fifteen students have registered and the class could grow to 20, said Bob Ballard, the institute’s executive director.

Ballard said nine students completed the initial class in 2014, with 11 following in 2015. The fee is $15,400 for each student, with some qualifying for grants. The fee covers the equipment, training, and 100,000 spats to grow oysters.

“Of the 20, everyone is still in the oyster business,” Ballard said, adding that some have been able to hire employees. Some of the earlier students have formed a co-op, where they will serve as the “middle man” in purchasing oysters that are harvested and then reselling them to restaurants and vendors.

“Right now, we have about 4 million oysters in the water,” Ballard said. “We have another 4 million on order. “We’re predicting that for October, November and December, we’ll be selling 10,000 a week.”

John Londot, an attorney with Greenberg Traurig’s Tallahassee office, is one of the new students. The venture seemed like the perfect opportunity, he said to not only help the economy but to help the environment.

“And, it’s very Zen-like being out there in the bay communing with oysters,” he said. “I would like to see the area become known for the world’s best oysters.”

By:  Byron Dobson
Tallahassee Democrat