The Spat King
December 22nd, 2014
By: Andre Gallant
The Spat King
Former businessman Justin Manley is revolutionizing Georgia's oyster industry one waterman at a time.
By Andre Gallant (reprinted from the Atlanta Journal)
Justin Manley backed up his University of Georgia work truck to a dock that dipped off Tolomato Island into McIntosh County's Crum Creek. The engine quit with a rumble. He unlatched the tailgate and dragged six neon-green mesh sacks to its edge.
Nearby, under a canopy of slash pine and live oaks, Rafe Rivers, an organic vegetable farmer, arranged eight-foot lengths of rebar and four-foot sections of PVC pipe into piles near his dock.
Together, they had the makings for a farm in the water. Rivers contributed the trellises; Manley brought the seed: oyster seed, baby bivalves not yet large enough to eat.
Manley motioned the farmer to join him at the truck and loosed a rope that bound the sacks. He'd already sorted three sizes of oysters (small, medium, large) into compartments. The oysters had matured from microscopic mollusks Manley collected from one of Georgia's many intertidal rivers earlier in the summer. Under his care, the tiny bivalves grew to their current size, ranging from toddler (a quarter inch) to adolescent (just shy of an inch), by housing them in a river-based holding tank called a floating upweller.
Manley dug into a bag and emerged with a handful of the pebble-sized oysters that dribbled down the sides of his palm like sand.
"Now these are too small, you're going to just hang these off your dock today. The rest we'll plant," Manley instructed Rivers, transferring the oysters to sturdy, plastic bags. The command is delivered in a firm staccato, a masculine bass steadied with a strict Detroit clip. Manley is at first meeting as rigid as a drill sergeant. He is never rude, just serious. Even when he removes his ever-present sunglasses to wipe them clean with his T-shirt, the action is delivered with precision. But hiding inside Manley's tough outer shell is a total oyster nerd, a mind packed full of research on estuary salinity and the effects of mud on oyster survival rates.
Rivers, 31, is as thin as a collegiate Ultimate Frisbee captain. Despite silver hairs beginning to line the mane he ties into a small bun at the base of his skull, he looks as if he might still be matriculating. But for the last decade he's been working on organic farms in California and Vermont.
They planned to boat out to Rivers' shellfishing lease on Mud River, a tract of brackish water and marsh mud where only the leaseholder can legally harvest wild oysters. There they would install a seafarm where the baby oysters would grow to market size. There are fewer than 20 commercial shellfish leaseholders in the state, and Rivers, who aspires to farm both oysters and collards, is the youngest by more than 20 years. He's also the newest, a recent coastal transplant, and in need of Manley's help. Manley's job as a UGA aquaculture extension agent is to help leaseholders like Rivers farm, just as a landlubbing agent would advise a chicken farmer in matters of flock management.
Before all this outreach, Manley, 39, was the first and only waterman to farm oysters in Georgia. It wasn't just his methods that made him stand out. Oystering in Georgia has floated mostly unchanged for a century. But a former factory worker from Detroit had dared to cross the wake.
The Spat King
Watermen is what the salt water-cured, sun-burnt souls who make a living harvesting shellfish are called. They are strong, steeled to the elements, but aging and unassuming in person. Manley looks nothing like most other watermen. Well past six feet, with a dense musculature sculpted by years of weight lifting, he appears more like a tight end on a recreational fishing trip than a man of the marsh. But an inspection of his hands proves otherwise. A lamina of engine grease dims the scrapes, cuts and scars inscribed on his palms from handling shellfish.
In 2011, he started Spat King Oysters, an oyster farming operation using basic aquaculture methods to cultivate single oysters worthy of fine dining from the same waters that previously had produced only a wild bivalve. He seeded and harvested in St. Catherine's Sound and sold to Savannah restaurants like Alligator Soul and Leoci's Trattoria. He sold every shell he grew.
The handful of serious watermen who work Georgia's 100-mile coast watched his experiment with doubt. Too much effort, they said. What's the payoff? But when they saw the fine dining market open up to Spat King's farmed single oysters, their interest piqued. Spat King Oysters was successful, but it was short-lived.
Manley decided the Georgia oyster industry didn't just need farmers, it needed a guide. With an academic background in biology and aquaculture, as well as his experience as an oysterman, he was hired by the Marine Extension Service's Shellfish Research Laboratory on Skidaway Island this spring to help grow the state's oyster industry. Manley would have to give up his beloved farm, a conflict of interest, but in exchange he might be the catalyst for an entire industry.
"Have you figured out what you're going to call your oysters yet?" Manley asked Rivers as they sped by boat through Doboy Sound one recent November afternoon.
"We thought about naming it after our farm," Rivers said. Canewater. "And we'd thought about Mud River Oysters, but people say it sounds too dirty."
Rivers threw his anchor onto a wide oyster mound poking out of the Mud River. They both hopped out to wait for the rest of the tide to wash out into Sapelo Sound. Manley wedged a slender wild oyster free from the muck and shucked it for Rivers, who slurped it down with awe.
"This is ridiculous. It tastes like this marsh," Rivers said. This was the first oyster Rivers had eaten from his lease. Georgia oysters are known for their brininess, as well as hints of lemongrass, the influence of the marsh's ubiquitous greenery, spartina. The quality, Rivers said, was impressive.
Exactly, Manley said. Rivers' post-slurp reaction had set off a rare spate of Manley exuberance.
"It's all about marketing," Manley said, his loud voice amplified by the marsh’s silence. "We want these restaurants to think of oysters from Ossabaw and Sapelo like different pinots from Italy. Place matters and it's important." Manley chopped his right hand into his left palm for emphasis. The oyster mound he stood on may as well have been a soapbox. "That's what you sell. You sell what you know and you know who you are. Take me, I am the Spat King!"
From factory to seafarm
Behind a white picket fence in a Detroit suburb, Manley grew up destined to be an autoworker. It's what his father did, and his father before him. Manley towed the line at first, using the factory to pay his way through college, and earned a degree in biology. He'd been considering graduate school to pursue aquaculture, and in 2003, he took a trip to Savannah to visit his sister who worked as an oncology nurse. He also wanted to check out Armstrong State University, a school with a strong aquaculture program with ties to the Marine Extension Service.
His sister's apartment complex backed up to marshland, and there was a dock with river access. He could see oysters growing on the muddy banks.
Emboldened by a beer or two, he walked onto the mud to investigate. Not knowing how to traverse the quicksand-like surface (walk on the oysters, not the mud), he lost his footing. His shoe sunk into the pluff mud and he buckled backward. His arms shot out to brace his body and his right hand caught the tip of an oyster spire. A shell point pierced his hand deeply and he bled into the mud.
Manley is part Native American and he believes humans share a spirit with the animal world. In Manley's mind, he and the oyster became one at that moment. Blood brothers.
A wave of euphoria washed over him as he pulled the loose skin of his palm from the oyster's blade. He laughed. He cried. He giggled.
Soon thereafter, Manley moved to Georgia, enrolled at Armstrong State, and interned at the Marine Extension Service. He met his wife, a Canadian, at a Savannah bar. Now they have two children. Save for a short stint working on an Ontario trout farm, Manley has spent most days since devoted to oysters.
Extension work means planning for the long term and extended periods at a desk writing emails and grants and reports. Planting the seafarm was the first real waterman work Manley had performed in weeks. He missed it desperately.
"The guys out here, they may not look at me like I'm one of them, but I am," Manley said. "I'm a waterman."
Georgia's oyster culture
A century ago, the Georgia oyster industry competed nationally. The Savannah-based L.P. Maggioni company operated a number of oyster canneries between Charleston, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., in which freshly dredged oysters would be shucked, sealed and shipped around the country in branded cans.
By the 1950s, harvests dwindled and the canneries closed. The blame falls on over-fishing or environmental degradation or a combination of the two, depending on whom you ask. There's no lone culprit. But one thing was certain, oystering was lost for a generation.
In the 1980s, a handful of watermen returned their attention to oysters, but just barely. Modern seafarms were opening around the country, ramping up the oyster boom we're experiencing today. In Georgia, oystering has remained old-fashioned. Other than the outboard motors that propel a waterman's boat, there's little difference in how oysters are harvested in 2014 than in 1914.
Oysters gather in mounds, sometimes in little dunes in the middle of a tidal river, sometimes spread along riverbanks. A waterman must exit his boat to begin whacking at the clumps with whichever heavy, blunt object he chooses. It can be as large as a construction worker's pry bar or as exact as a knife. Many watermen use a foot-long strap of steel, about two inches wide and a quarter inch thick.
The oyster clusters are broken down by force to more manageable sizes, a mass small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. They are cleaned, tossed into bushel sacks, cleaned again then sold to the public for rustic oyster roasts.
With respect to history, Manley felt the Georgia oyster needed an update.
Raw seafood bars are one of the restaurant world's biggest trends. In Atlanta, restaurants like Kimball House and the Optimist are part of the wave. Oyster farms, offering a truly sustainable product, are trending, too.
Virginia's farmed production increased 800 percent in the last decade, and the state created a tourist-friendly oyster trail this year to highlight its success.
Around these parts, though, local oysters are a rarity.
Wild oysters here gather in clumps on top of mud so thick it can swallow a person's leg up to the knee. Their sharp shell tips point skyward. Each spawning season, mature oysters attract floating oyster larvae called spat onto their shells. Young oysters grow onto the old. The cluster is fine for the survival of the oyster, but it makes human consumption a chore.
This clustering created a reputation for the Georgia oyster as an inferior, ugly product. Manley said chefs have complained about the mud found trapped in the shells, as well as the effort needed to process the clumps into something worth serving. Farmed oysters are essentially raised in captivity, which shapes them uniformly and makes them easier to shuck.
The good news is the dearth of local bivalves available in the state's restaurants is not nature's fault. Georgia's estuaries are as healthy and clean as any Manley has seen. It's the fishing culture along the coast and human nature's resistance to change that has prevented the local oyster industry from realizing its potential. Only a handful of people work the waters in Georgia. It's a small, fiercely independent community that cares more about the lifestyle than the paycheck.
"Some of us do this because we don't fit too well into society," said Dan DeGuire, a 57-year-old waterman working near Crooked River in Camden County. "There's a freedom of being out on the water."
Manley believes that once watermen get used to farming, once they see the consistent, clean product it creates and watch their profits climb, a farmed oyster industry will take off.
He's determined to convince them, one waterman at a time.
Manley had picked the perfect weather to help Rivers plot his farm, but perhaps the worst tide. Low tide, the time slot during which oystermen conduct business in the marsh, came at the peak heat of the day at 5:30 p.m. The late hour meant their work would begin near dusk and wouldn't end until past dark. They'd have to speed back to Rivers' dock under moonlight.
Manley and Rivers jumped waist-deep into Mud River, the water cool but not yet cold. Rivers wore the garb of a modern outdoorsman: sweat-wicking shirts and leggings, and waterproof kayaking boots. Manley looked like he'd skimmed the bottom of the laundry basket wearing old swim trunks and running shoes.
Working in water as high as their thighs, Manley and Rivers pulled PVC and rebar out of the boat and began setting up the farm. They jammed the PVC deep into the mud at two-foot intervals, forming a long line. They then ran lengths of rebar through 4-inch holes drilled into the plastic pipe. The setup looked not unlike a muscadine trellis, but just two feet high and hidden within a tidal river.
Between each PVC post they hung bags of oysters onto rebar using zip ties. Each bag held between 250 and 500 oysters, depending on size, and it was up to Rivers to come back as the oysters grew and re-sort them. The hard work was over for Rivers.
Now it was time to tend and wait. A year from now, he should have a crop of oysters ready for market.
Rivers and Manley climbed back into the boat, peeled off their wet clothes and headed back over the Doboy Sound to Rivers' Crum Creek dock.
Rivers offered thank you after thank you to Manley as they motored back to the dock, but Manley denied each one with a shake of his head.
"This is not a handout," Manley told him. "You're helping us build an industry. We need you to be successful and do this right."
Old guard adapts
Earnest McIntosh Sr., 62-year-old, gray-haired waterman with glassy blue eyes, has crabbed, oystered and shrimped his whole life, combining the catches to earn a decent living for his family in Harris Neck, a historic African-American community in northeastern McIntosh County. The fraying thighs of his yellow fisherman's bib pants show they long passed needing to be replaced.
During World War II, the U.S. government stripped Harris Neck families like the McIntoshes of their land to build an airstrip. Many of the displaced families worked the marshes around Harris Neck for seafood. Some have moved on since then, but McIntosh stayed.
Part of the disputed land is now a federally protected nature preserve, and McIntosh uses its public dock to park his boat. He works the water daily alongside his 30-year-old son, Earnest McIntosh Jr. One recent November morning, they motored toward the dock at a pace so slow it made the breeze whistling through the spartina seem pushy. Turns out a bushing in their motor had cracked. But given the leisurely pace at which they unloaded and cleaned their boat, the plodding speed seemed normal.
Manley delivered 20,000 baby oysters to McIntosh earlier this fall. Their oyster farm is set up in a different fashion than Rivers' seafarm. Instead of creating a trellis to hang bags of oysters from, McIntosh staked the bags down flat on a submerged oyster bed to hide them from potential thieves. Pilfering plagues oyster populations, both wild and farmed.
"Have you had an oyster from around here?" McIntosh Jr. asked, a smile emerging between his thin Fu Manchu beard and mustache. "There's nothing like it."
"They're clean, fresh," added his father.
Asked if he can tell the difference between an oyster harvested here and just south in Mud River, McIntosh Jr. doesn't hesitate.
"100 percent," he said.
McIntosh Sr. was not without his doubts about oyster farming. It sounded like so much work, he said, the tending, the watching, the waiting.
Leaning against a truck filled with 700 pounds of oysters, he looked content with how things were.
His son, though, is on board. He has the same striking blue eyes as his father, but there's a passion behind his that has not yet dimmed. He's a father to four young children, husband to a wife whose college degree has proved ineffective in rural Georgia. It's up to him to support the family, and he thinks farming may allow him to do so with greater comfort. Single-oyster farming promises a bigger payday. Also, farming can be the legacy he passes on to the next generation.
"It's the future, you know?" McIntosh Jr. said in a drawl both coastal and millennial. "We'll have these pretty oysters, and we'll get them into restaurants. There'll be a future here for my son."
Such hopefulness is good news to Manley. He knows his enthusiasm can take the industry only so far. Without the commitment to farming from young watermen like Rivers and McIntosh Jr., Manley's plans will be dead in the water.
Building a hatchery
There will be no oyster industry in Georgia, Manley says, without an oyster hatchery to cultivate spat. There are hatcheries up and down the east coast, but not one in Georgia. It is possible to import oyster spat from another state and call it a day, but there are dangers in that.
South Carolina's oyster farmers have been importing spat from out-of-state, a move that allowed the state's burgeoning industry to leapfrog Georgia's. But a batch of spat from a Virginia hatchery sent to South Carolina earlier this year tested positive for MSX, a parasite that's harmless to humans but kills oysters, prompting the state's natural resources department to place a moratorium on importing spat from any hatchery to its north. The East Coast Shellfish Growers Association called the ban fear-based, but for Manley it only further proved why Georgia needed its own hatchery.
"I'd be lying if I never thought about importing spat, farming it and conducting business as usual," Manley says. "But I know I could never live with myself not doing this ethically, as I see it. We've at least got to try."
He's about to get his way.
Using a grant from Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division, which allots federal money to local projects, Manley is building the state's first oyster hatchery in the University of Georgia's Shellfish Research Laboratory on Skidaway Island. Manley will spawn oysters sourced from the waters near the lab, feed them a diet of salt water and algae, and raise them in large tanks until the oysters are large and healthy enough to survive in the open water.
By fall 2015 Manley expects to be growing up to 5 million oysters a year, about 50 times the amount he produced this year using much simpler methods. The watermen will get free spat again next year, and the year after that. Then they'll have to start paying a competitive price. Manley isn't trying to run a business out of the laboratory. He'd prefer to focus on research and breeding a heartier oyster stock. But until a commercial hatchery opens, it will have to do.
All the makings for the facility are on order and will be arriving throughout the winter. The hatchery should be functional by May 2015. But before he can turn the lab into a hatchery, Manley needs to clean house.
He disassembles old shellfish research projects that have sat dormant in the lab for at least a decade. He sprays the walls with a pressure washer, disinfects every surface and scrubs the freezers and coolers. He moves desks and Marine Extension literature out of the spawning room that had, in Manley's memory, only been used as storage even when he was a grad student.
It is boring, mindless work, but Manley doesn't care. It's just another part of his multi-faceted job, revolutionizing the state's oyster industry.
"Not all of it's fun," Manley says. But it's worth it because "there's nothing better than seeing the guys' faces when you bring them these oysters, and you know they're going to do it right."
He continues to stack boxes of brochures about marsh ecology and marine habitat restoration onto a dolly.
"I'm just glad to be in oysters again."
About the reporter
Andre Gallant is a writer and photographer specializing in stories about food and farming. He is based in Athens, Georgia, where he lives with his pastry chef wife and hilarious 2-year-old daughter. A native of Prince Edward Island, Canada, Gallant has called the South home for more than 20 years. He blogs regularly at www.andre-gallant.com.