On the trail of oysters

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NEW PROGRAM HOPES ‘SEA-TO-TABLE’ FOCUS WILL LURE VISITORS AND BUSINESSES 

Aquaculture, sea-to-table, aqua-tourism, merroir: Larry Hughes loves using expressive terms for the Lowcountry Oyster Trail.

“Why can’t we have aqua-tourism? We have ecotourism,” he said. “It’s just tourism focused on our special marine ecosystem.”

When it comes to oysters, “merroir” is the maritime version of what terroir is to wine — the environmental factors that affect the grapes the wine is made of. The term is gaining acceptance among oyster lovers.

oysterstrail“As I’ve learned from our local watermen and scientists, the taste of oysters is affected by water salinity, tidal change, the nutrients they filter, even their reproductive cycle,” Hughes said. “If wild oysters are left to their own and unharvested, the weight from new oysters on the top layers could actually over time push the ones on the bottom into the pluff mud and they would suffocate. So we’re saving them by eating them.”

As part of his efforts to “save” the oysters, Hughes founded the Lowcountry Oyster Train in November as a tourism and economic development initiative focused on the sea-to-fork movement among foodies. Its geographical boundaries extend south from Charleston to the Georgia border, then west into Georgia to include Chatham and Effingham counties. He was inspired by a similar program in Virginia that has generated millions in revenue for that state.

“What they’ve done is very smart,” he said of the Virginia trail. “For marketing purposes, they’ve divided their state coastline into six oyster regions, claiming each one has a different ‘merroir’ and you have to experience the different tastes.”

Of course, the Virginia oyster trail can’t compete with what the Lowcountry has to offer.

Larry Hughes“Our oysters are simply the best,” Hughes said.

So far, the Lowcountry Oyster Trail has eight corporate sponsors; Hughes is looking to add more partners who can provide history, culture and outdoor activities to visitors.

“Each partner will get a plaque to display, but to earn it and keep it they’ll have to maintain certain standards and agree to be stewards of a great Lowcountry Oyster Trail experience for tourists and residents,” he said.

The trail isn’t just about the experiences, however. Hughes wanted his program to also help preserve and protect valuable natural resources like the area’s waters.

“As I put together my business plan, I began to think about ways to take the fun of the Lowcountry Oyster Trail and use it to fund marine ecosystem research,” he said. “That’s where the tag line ‘Eat an oyster. Help an oyster.’ came from. What if we could create a sustainable funding stream to analyze the health and well-being of our fresh and salt water, our marine ecosystem? That has led to the creation of the SC Lowcountry Oyster Trail Fund, part of the family of funds at the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry.  And that is what makes us different from Virginia or any other oyster trail in the country. … First we need to find out what we don’t know about our ecosystem, then perhaps we can build a research center and that could be a way to attract mariculture-related technology companies to the Lowcountry.”

OUR OYSTERS ARE THE STAR. THEY ARE STRONGLY TIED INTO THE CULTURE AND SOCIAL FABRIC OF OUR LOWCOUNTRY.

Hughes said he was surprised to learn that the various institutions studying area waterways and marine life don’t really share information with each other for a look at the bigger picture.

“I got University of South Carolina Beaufort and Clemson scientists to meet and asked do you all know what each other is doing? I discovered they are generally aware, but nobody was looking at it from a holistic standpoint,” he said. “Clemson is focused on fresh water and USCB is pursuing marsh, estuarine and offshore research. Now we’re beginning to look at better coordination and communication as it relates to what our fin stock and shellfish must live in, the water we drink and use for business and industry, and how it all relates. The possibilities are exciting, and partners like the Port Royal Sound Foundation, Waddell Mariculture Center and the Coastal Discovery Museum are joining in.”

It’s only fitting, he said, that oysters be at the center of so much attention — and could help draw visitors to the area.

 “Our oysters are the star. They are strongly tied into the culture and social fabric of our Lowcountry,” he said. “The first thing an oyster has to do is look inviting and it has to taste like the ocean. Great oysters are the hook, gracious hospitality is the line, and amazing experiences are the sinker.”