Two gloved hands hold oysters.
Oyster Spat Young oysters grow on recycled shells. © Jennifer Emerling

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TNC Announces Recipients of Funds to Support Resilient Shellfish Farming in Georgia

Funding from the Shellfish Growers Resiliency Fund will help protect the coast and support local businesses that are leading the way

TNC has announced the recipients of the new Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR) Shellfish Growers Resiliency Fund. One million dollars in total awards are being provided to shellfish farmers and aligned organizations across the United States who are raising the bar in the aquaculture industry on conservation, innovation, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Two efforts in Georgia were selected for funding: an oyster shell recycling initiative led by Seabear Oyster Bar in Athens and expanding oyster aquaculture with E.L. McIntosh & Son Seafood in Darien.

“The goal is to restore and conserve Georgia's natural estuary systems and to integrate sustainable aquaculture into that work,” said Christi Lambert, TNC’s coastal and marine conservation director in Georgia.

Oyster reefs are the most imperiled marine habitat on Earth. Globally, over 85% of oyster reefs have disappeared due to overharvesting, diseases and changes to marine habitats.

One of the two projects funded in Georgia will connect Seabear Oyster Bar's "Shell to Shore" project in Athens to the University of Georgia’s coastal restoration and resiliency initiatives. After diners consume oysters, the shells will be gathered from Seabear and other inland restaurants, cleaned and “cured” in Athens, and transported back to the coast to support oyster farming and restoration. Sapelo Island's Save Our Legacy Ourself program will provide coastal logistics and planning support for future restoration efforts. “We are excited to be a part of increasing awareness about the inland-coastal connection and to support the growing oyster farming industry in Georgia,” said Hunt Revell, partner at Seabear and UGA Sea Grant legal fellow.

Oyster aquaculture, or growing oysters for harvest, is an important part of restoring the overall health of Georgia’s vulnerable marine habitats. That’s why E.L. McIntosh & Son Seafood and TNC are developing a pilot program—the additional project funded in Georgia—to educate 10th–12th grade students at McIntosh County Academy, a local public high school, about oyster aquaculture and shellfish restoration.

“Building from more than 40 years of experience, my family and I want to be instrumental in promoting a viable oyster aquaculture model for Georgia,” said Earnest McIntosh, owner of E.L. McIntosh & Son Seafood. “Being a Black operated company, I believe I can be a mentor for students and others from a variety of backgrounds to give them inspiration and hope in starting their own businesses.” Funding from SOAR will allow McIntosh to scale up oyster production to meet growing demand and to serve as a learning opportunity for students.

The Fund is a continuation of the successful SOAR initiative, created by TNC in collaboration with The Pew Charitable Trusts, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to address the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the oyster aquaculture industry.

When the pandemic caused restaurants to close unexpectedly, many oyster farmers found themselves unable to sell their product. SOAR was created to support struggling farmers by purchasing unsaleable live oysters for deployment on restoration sites. Since its launch in October of 2020, SOAR has supported 125 shellfish farming companies and sustained over 450 jobs across seven states. The more than 3.5 million oysters purchased have helped rebuild nearly 40 acres of imperiled native shellfish reefs across 25 restoration sites.

While the oyster purchase program was initially geared towards solving the immediate challenges faced by farmers due to the pandemic, with markets recovering, the SOAR team is focusing on building resiliency in the industry to mitigate the impact of future challenges. Awards are being distributed to 37 projects across 16 coastal U.S. states to support initiatives that encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion in the shellfish industry; diversify products and marketing streams; encourage grower participation in marine conservation efforts; and enhance sustainability of farming operations.

Oysters are more than a fine dining fixture—they’re fantastic water filterers and natural buffers for coastal communities. Farmed or wild, a healthy adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water daily, removing excess nutrients and other pollutants in coastal waters. Oyster reefs help protect shorelines from erosion by serving as natural buffers against rising tides and hurricanes.

“Shellfish farming is one of the most sustainable ways of producing food, and in some cases can even be restorative, when it comes to the health of some of our most fragile marine ecosystems,” said Robert Jones, TNC’s Global Lead for Aquaculture. “By investing in the farmers and organizations, we’re not just contributing to our conservation goals, we’re supporting livelihoods and coastal communities. We also believe that creating a more diverse industry will bring new ideas, innovations and solutions to some of the planet’s greatest challenges.”

“These projects will support sustainable economic growth, and they’ll also improve the resilience of coastal habitats—which in turn can provide valuable benefits, from greater storm protection to more jobs to cleaner water,” said Aaron Kornbluth, a senior officer with Pew’s conserving marine life in the U.S. project. “Shellfish growers can be ideal partners in conservation, and we’re excited to be building connections between them and scientists, resource managers, and the public.”

To find out more about the Fund and the SOAR program visit our SOAR page.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.