Oyster Farmer Frank Roberts Produces Prize-worthy Oysters from the Pristine Waters of the ACE Basin

Oysters are my all-time favorite seafood, and often my favorite food, period. I can be sitting in an oyster bar, miles from the ocean, and when I eat one I can almost feel sand between my toes and smell salt in the air. So when Frank Roberts told me the South Carolina coast is fast becoming the Napa Valley of oysters, he caught my attention.

Oysters are the sea’s version of fine wine; their taste varies with the water they grow in. Just like the chardonnays of California, each oyster is expressive of the locale where it is raised. Currently, there is an oyster renaissance underway in the creeks and rivers of the southeastern United States, from Virginia all the way down to Florida’s Apalachicola Bay.
This region is adopting the aquaculture that restored a decimated oyster industry in the north, a practice that has led to a huge boost in local oyster production year-round.

Remember the “r” rule when it comes to months when you can eat oysters? Put that rule on ice and read on. The change from cool-weather-only harvesting to year-round harvesting of local oysters involves farm-harvested selects, part of a growing mariculture industry in South Carolina. Over the past few years, oystermen like Roberts along the Gulf and the Atlantic have begun raising “off-bottom” oysters in suspended cages to produce uniformly plump selects.

With farm-harvested oysters, there’s no need to shut down harvesting in the hot summer months. The key is doing it right. That’s why in roadside seafood joints along the coast, saltines and cocktail sauce can be served alongside oysters on the half shell year-round. Even in July? Why not? Just tip your head back and savor a taste of the sea served in perfectly shucked oysters.

Carolina Mariculture

Frank Roberts, a pioneer in Lowcountry oyster mariculture, is a man who came to the Lowcountry and saw a paradise. He looked out over the tidal rivers and salt marshes and saw unlimited potential. But when he first laid eyes on the Coosaw, he couldn’t believe it. “It was absolutely perfect,” he says, “the best oyster habitat you could have. At that time, no one was growing single oysters, so that opportunity was wide open.” Not long after moving to the Lowcountry permanently in the early 2000s, he realized his dream of creating his own oyster farm, Lady’s Island Oysters, Inc, at 35 Hutson Road, located just off Highway 21 in Seabrook.

Roberts is a man with a passion who is inspiring a new generation of farmers to compete with the very best of the East and West Coasts. His oysters are perfect for slurping right out of the shell and chasing with a beer. On our trip out to see the oyster cages, Roberts keeps a firm hand on the outboard motor of his weathered 20-foot boat, wearing a camouflaged cap low over his eyes, as he talks and pilots the craft over the calm waters of the Coosaw.

“Southern states such as Georgia and the Carolinas have, until now, been known for wild oyster reefs that cluster in moonscapes. They are the result of “spat”—the free-swimming oyster larvae that settle on other oysters and grow upon them. The clusters need to be hammered and pried apart in order to be served as succulent singles. That’s a lot of work. And, in warm months, Southern oysters are exposed to the scorching sun during the hours when the tide is out and they become incubators of bacteria.” In other parts of the country, oysters are subtidal, constantly submerged in water. South Carolina and Georgia oysters—exposed to air when the tide goes out—are intertidal.

“Mariculture takes our intertidal oysters and makes them subtidal and safe, never exposed to air and sun. They are kept submerged so that they are always open and pumping,” adds Roberts.

Triploids for Summer Harvest

Aquaculture has created triploids—the only oysters South Carolina farmers grow in the summer. “They must be triploids for summer harvest,” says Roberts. They are grown in hatcheries just like the one Roberts created in Seabrook. Triploids are widely used today because they have three sex chromosomes instead of two, which renders them sterile, allowing them to put all their energy into growing. As a result, they reach plump maturity after about a year as opposed to a wild oyster’s three years.

Oysters being cultivated live in protective cages or floats that rest in the water rather than the muddy bottom. Called “farming off the bottom,” this method allows farmers to keep the oysters clean and safe, and to shake them in their cages to prevent them from clumping together.

“We get calls from all over the country,” says Roberts, “but Charleston takes about 98 percent of them, with the rest going to restaurants in Beaufort and Hilton Head.”

For the ultimate in oyster fine dining, experience Frank’s oysters at The Ordinary in Charleston, the casually elegant seafood restaurant famed chef Mike Lata opened inside an old King Street bank. Lata cooks some of the best seafood in town—rich and delicious because he sources it local, often caught and served the same day. The cream of the crop—local oysters rich with the ocean’s brine—are the prize, emerging from the kitchen daily. Last year Lata bought 40,000 Phat Lady oysters from Roberts—a wild variety raised specifically for Lata. Their popularity stems from their extremely salty taste, taking on the brine of the Lady’s Island estuary—essentially undiluted seawater. “Our oysters have that really nice brine,” says Frank. “It’s a sweet-tasting oyster with a really clean finish. No lingering mineral or metallic aftertaste—some of the most supreme oysters ever tasted.”

Champion of the Lowcountry Oyster Farm

Oystering has been a way of life for Frank Roberts for generations. His ancestors began harvesting oysters in the wild in the Chesapeake Bay back in the 1700s. He followed in their footsteps and grew up harvesting oysters in the waters of the Chesapeake and Long Island Sound. That all changed when he came to Parris Island as a Marine Corps recruit back in 1981 and was introduced to the Lowcountry and its pristine estuaries filled with oysters.

His military career took him overseas for several years. In October 1983, he left his Marine barracks near the Beirut airport on a covert mission as a sniper. “Just after I left, a truck filled with explosives drove into the barracks, killing 241 Marines in my unit.” In 1985, he left the Marine Corps for good and became a police officer in New Haven, Connecticut, working the night shift and taking on a job with the FBI’s violent crimes task force, targeting narcotics traffickers. To escape the pressures of the job, Frank visited oyster hatcheries during the daytime and began to learn the science of mariculture—specifically oyster farming. He set his sights on getting back to Beaufort.

What Determines an Oyster’s Taste?

Roberts attributes the outstanding flavor of his oysters to the pure Atlantic salt waters flowing directly into the Saint Helena Sound estuary. An oyster’s taste is dependent on its “merroir.” A take on “terroir”—a term describing the natural environment in which a wine is produced—an oyster’s “merroir” determines its flavor characteristics due to the subtleties of the water environment in which it grows. Because oysters grow by filtering nutrients from the algae that flows through their gills, the type of algae, the level of salinity, and the mineralogy of the water all contribute to the flavor.

“Our Single Lady oysters go from the larva stage in the nursery to the raw bar and beer in just a year. In the wild, oysters take three years to complete the same growth process and they experience a much higher mortality rate,” says Roberts.

What’s his secret to raising high-quality oysters with a much better survival rate than oysters in the wild? He attributes his success to the Lowcountry estuary environment, to his years of research and learning what works and what doesn’t, and to carefully controlling the process. “It’s both an art and a science. Our oysters spawn a lot and they grow fast in the protected, food-rich environment we provide.” And Frank has his own special recipe of filtered seawater and microalgae to nourish the microscopic oyster larvae. “It’s like having a secret recipe for barbecue seasoning—but it’s a recipe of concentrated phytoplankton that we feed our oyster larvae.”

The Southeast has been the sleeping giant of the oyster world, but now, with folks like Roberts, the giant isn’t sleeping anymore. With the warm South’s longer season and faster growth, Southern oystermen can undercut northern producers on price, and they are poised to become a staple at oyster bars across North America.