ST. PETERSBURG — Most weekends, Brian Rosegger is out on the water before sunrise.
On this particular August morning, he’s running a little late, and the sun is already high in the sky. Rosegger steers his boat, a 20-foot Carolina Skiff, out of the Cut’s Edge Harbor Marina in Palmetto, underneath a small overpass and into the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve. It’s about a 30-minute trip to his destination, a bobbing collection of ropes and floating cages tumbling in the waves.
This is an oyster aquaculture operation, a 2-acre plot of water in Joe Bay, a small, secluded area near the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
Rosegger begins the day’s work: emptying the floating cages, sorting the oysters, refilling the cages and submerging them back into the water. Then, he hops into the bay with them, flipping the large bundles while brushing off a crush of barnacles, seaweed, tiny crabs and other sea gunk.
There is nary a boat in sight, but Rosegger is not alone: A cormorant floats nearby, eyeing him curiously. Sometimes a bonnethead shark appears, looking for leftover oyster bits to scavenge. And then there’s Joe, the friendly manatee that likes to hug the cages while rubbing his belly against the rough, barnacle-covered undersides.
Rosegger usually spends about 10 hours a day working on the farm, often not returning home till well after dark. Today is a half-day, though, and shortly after noon, he cracks a beer. He pulls a handful of oysters from a cooler and begins to shuck.
The thin shells carry a ruffled look, green and purple in some spots, with deep yet thin cups. He tips the oyster into his mouth and savors it. There’s a strong briny punch at first, and right at the end, a buttery, mineral finish.
Some might scoff at the idea of eating a raw oyster plucked straight from Tampa Bay, but Rosegger is here to change their mind.
First of its kind
Oyster farming in Tampa Bay is novel: Lost Coast Oyster Co., which Rosegger runs with his wife, Lindsay, is the first aquaculture oyster farming operation of its kind in the area.
The oysters are farmed through a method known as off-bottom oyster cultivation, where the bivalves are suspended in floating cages, which protects them from predators while producing a high-quality oyster. With the decline of wild oyster landings across the Gulf Coast, it’s a practice that has grown increasingly popular the past couple of years. In Louisiana and parts of Alabama, the aquaculture business has spawned an oyster farming renaissance, with the boutique bivalves competing side by side with wild oysters for diners' attention.
Though farm-raised oysters account for about 95 percent of the oysters consumed in the United States, aquaculture operations are still fairly new to Florida’s west coast. But the industry is growing quickly, spurred in part by a plummeting wild oyster population as well as recent changes to state regulations, which allow for more modifications on water column leases used for the farming. The leases, administered by Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, are now on the rise.
After visiting off-bottom oyster operations in Cedar Key, the Roseggers were inspired to start an oyster farm of their own near their home in St. Petersburg. A few years ago they began hatching a plan for Lost Coast Oyster Co., and in September, their briny bivalves, called LoCos, finally hit the market.
Touting the LoCos as the “new and improved Gulf oyster,” the name has already attracted a good deal of buzz, grabbing the attention of several high-caliber restaurants across the Tampa Bay area, including St. Petersburg’s Alto Mare and Urban Stillhouse, Clearwater’s Bascom’s Chop House and Tampa’s Ulele.
Earlier this year, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced it was shutting down the wild oyster harvest in Apalachicola Bay for as long as five years in an attempt to save the quintessential Florida ecosystem. With Apalachicola oysters off the table for the foreseeable future, many have predicted that aquaculture operations like the Roseggers' could be an indication of booming business in years to come.
Building a farm
In 2013, Florida’s wild oyster population was in dire straits — in particular the Apalachicola Bay region, which at one time provided 90 percent of the state’s oysters and 10 percent of the country’s. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared a fishery disaster on the bay, caused in part by decades of over-harvesting and saltwater intrusion.
The same year, the state altered the existing regulations to allow full water column leases for aquaculture operation. All of a sudden, the off-bottom oyster farming industry in Florida started taking off, with industrious would-be farmers jumping into the bivalve business all across Florida’s west coast, in particular around Cedar Key and Panacea.
Brian Rosegger, an environmental science major who spent four years studying oyster populations in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon spill, was already familiar with the industry. He knew Florida’s warm waters lent themselves to speedy oyster cultivation — the warmer the water, the faster the oyster grows. And though the state had approved several aquaculture operations, so far, there were none in the Tampa Bay area. Rosegger saw an opportunity.
“I’ve always liked being on the water and I love oysters,” he said. “I knew that a lot of people initially didn’t think that oyster farming in Tampa Bay could be done — but we were undeterred and we just kept trying.”
But starting an oyster aquaculture operation was a lot easier said than done.
The couple had to first find a plot of water they deemed suitable for oyster cultivation, which then had to be approved by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Water quality is a concern, but so are other environmental factors. Because there were no approved areas in Tampa Bay, the couple had to search for sites themselves — a process that involved Rosegger spending his weekends exploring different parts of the bay with a snorkel. Eventually, they settled on the spot in Joe Bay, and in 2019, their application for a 2-acre water column lease was finally approved.
That’s when things got tricky. For one, they needed money. Though the actual lease itself isn’t expensive —$35 a year per acre — the startup costs are. Because the aquaculture industry is so new, persuading both a bank to give them a loan and an insurance company to give them commercial liability insurance proved difficult.
“We had to buy all the gear, we had to buy a boat,” Lindsay Rosegger recalled. “Then we had boat problems, trailer problems. It was kind of laughable, like, what else could go wrong?”
Finally, by mid-2019 the farm was beginning to take shape. To raise oysters, you first start with oyster seed or spat — miniature oyster stock, usually purchased from a local hatchery. The first batch of oyster seed was purchased from Bay Shellfish Co., a commercial bivalve hatchery in Terra Ceia Island, and planted in October 2019.
The oysters are suspended in hanging cages, each measuring about 18 inches wide by 36 inches long. The cages, which float in about 6 feet of water, are flanked by floats on either side and clipped to a long line that runs horizontally to the seafloor and is tethered to the bottom. As the oysters grow, they are sorted and transferred to different cages.
The oyster spat start out roughly the size of small cornflakes. By the time they are ready to be harvested, a full-size oyster measures about 3 to 4 inches wide. The Roseggers refer to the industry standard 3:2:1 ratio for their LoCos: 3 inches long, 2 inches wide and a cup that’s about 1 inch deep. The entire process takes about nine months, from start to finish.
The farm now consists of three rows of cages, with 60 cages per row. The goal is 20 rows of cages, which Rosegger guesses would yield about half a million oysters per year.
How it’s going
In late May, the first LoCos were ready to be harvested. But first, the couple had to get the company licensed as a shellfish processor so they could distribute and sell directly to restaurants. That came in September, and a few days later, the oysters started appearing on menus.
Unlike wild oysters with their thick, large and uneven rough shells, off-bottom cultivation lends the final oyster a much more delicate shape, with deep cups and a wind-worn look. Just like wine takes on the characteristic flavors from where the grapes are grown, oysters, too, take on the flavors of their terroir. The salinity of the water where the LoCos are farmed is very high, about 35 parts per thousand, and because of this the oysters carry a super salty punch.
Though the couple hope their model will be an inspiration for other prospective oyster farmers in the area, they say the business comes with its own set of challenges. Right now, the company is still a two-person business and both are still employed full time: He works in permitting for infrastructure projects for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and she’s the development manager for the American Lung Association. In January, they welcomed their first child, a baby girl named Nova. When they are not working or parenting, they’re harvesting, marketing and selling oysters.
Besides the financial costs and time commitments involved with running an oyster farming operation, there are plenty of environmental factors that can make for an unreliable harvest, from hurricanes and sea level rise to increased pollution and runoff, which can affect water quality.
It’s hard to say definitively, but it’s likely that the coronavirus pandemic has hampered business as well: Many restaurant are still not running at 100 percent capacity, while others might be eyeing a pricey purchase with trepidation at a time when the economy still feels up in the air. Like other boutique bivalves, the LoCos come at a slightly higher price and are currently sold at $1.25 per oyster.
For now, the Roseggers plan to keep their product exclusive to the Tampa Bay market, and so far, the area’s emphasis on buying local — especially in St. Petersburg — has the couple optimistic.
“Farming is a tough business,” Brian Rosegger said. “There are definitely easier ways to make money. But I’ve reached a point in my life where I want to do something that I’m proud of.”
Where to find LoCos
Alto Mare: 300 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg
Bascom’s Chop House: 3665 Ulmerton Road, Clearwater
Ulele: 1810 N Highland Ave., Tampa
Urban Stillhouse: 2232 Fifth Ave. S, St. Petersburg
Urban Market: 2601 Central Ave., Unit B, St. Petersburg
Boat Run Oyster Company: 615 Channelside Drive, Suite 5, Tampa