An avid champion of sustainably harvested seafood, Andrew Carmines has his sights set on expanding his nascent oyster farming business.
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
As wild oyster populations along the Southeast coast continue to come under both man-made and natural threats, Andrew Carmines of Shell Ring Oyster Company Company strives to increase awareness of the benefits of sustainably farming these hard working and beneficial bivalves.
Traveler, fisherman, surfer, dad, husband, oyster farmer and avid steward of creeks, rivers, lagoons and the ocean it is safe to say that Andrew Carmines wears many hats. And then there is his day job as General Manager of the storied restaurant Hudson’s on the Docks in Hilton Head, South Carolina, that overflows with its own history dating back to 1912 when it was built as a seafood processing plant.
At the young age of 42 Andrew lives a full life that would run circles around many guys half his age. It is no secret that this man stays busy. Thus, it was with anticipation and appreciation that I had the opportunity to sit down with him at Hudson’s on the Docks early one July morning under darkening skies that signaled the slow advance of Tropical Storm Elsa as she headed north out of Cuba and into Florida.
Andrew showed up to our meeting overlooking the beautiful Skull Creek sporting a long-sleeve camo shirt with matching camo Crocs and a multi-colored, sea-sprayed mane looking every bit the part of a man-of-the-sea.
He was exceptionally friendly, congenial and loquacious on every topic that we touched on from the restaurant business to the numerous challenges of growing his Shell Ring Oyster Company, to his deep and abiding concerns regarding the centuries old, disappearing coastal culture. Thrown in for good measure were some personal stories of his myriad life experiences. I immediately sensed that we had much in common despite the fact that we have a 20+ year age gap (he’s the younger one!) and our lives lived on opposite coasts could not be more different.
Although I know very little about oyster farming, except that I enjoy the end result, I knew that sitting down with Andrew would bring me up-to-date on the modern day, environmentally sustainable cultivation of oysters and perhaps provide a historical snapshot of this ancient practice going back thousands of years.
Soon the conversation turned to the complications and frustratingly bureaucratic and societal dance that independent oyster farmers are required to navigate in order to start, and manage, an oyster operation in the nearby waters off the coast. There are multiple entities involved in the procurement of the necessary permits, not the least of which are local politicians, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) along with the Army Corps of Engineers. And then there is the added pressure brought to bear on aspiring farmers by boaters, fishermen and residents who live near areas where farming could potentially be carried out.
To refer to this bureaucratic entanglement as a Sisyphean struggle would be an understatement.
Oysters have been an essential part of the Lowcountry’s history dating back more than 4000 years, when indigenous Americans used the shells of their harvests to create shell rings for communal gatherings, ceremonies and feasts. History also tells us that oyster reefs were central to the very existence of the Gullah Geechee people, many of whom still live and thrive in the lowcountry. It is impossible to ignore the significance of oyster cultivation and the generations of people whose lives have revolved around oysters in this and other coastal regions.
Which begs the question…in an environment where wild oyster beds are being lost at an alarming rate due to over harvesting and climate change why wouldn’t the various powers-that-be come together to support the efforts of well intentioned individuals that seek to grow oysters in an environmentally responsible way?
In the fog of this contentious issue one thing is clearly obvious.
Turning politics and social divisiveness into productive conversation is considerably more complicated that the actual farming of oysters. Needless to say, to an less informed outsider like me it seems ludicrous on its face. However, to the numerous players involved it remains a considerably more thorny issue.
Through the entanglement of challenges that are brought to bear Andrew remains incredibly steadfast and positive about his future prospects to grow his oyster business. No stranger to long hours and hard work he keeps his eye on the prize in an exceptionally focused way.
That prize being bringing the finest, freshest oysters that he can grow and harvest to the tables of his hungry patrons at Hudson’s on the Docks.