When most of his friends were trying to get post-college internships, then 24-year-old Cyrus Buffum was founding Charleston Waterkeeper. The organization was designed to protect, promote, and restore the quality of Charleston’s waterways and for seven years he ran it, taking the organization from fledgling idea to 501c3 nonprofit. But now, after a decade advocating for clean water, Buffum has jumped into a different career — oysterman.
City Paper: By all accounts your work as the face and brains behind Charleston Waterkeeper made you the toast of activists in Charleston. Why leave?
Cyrus Buffam: I started Charleston Waterkeeper at the age of 24, while I was teaching sailing on Charleston Harbor. The seven years that followed were some of the most rewarding moments of my life. Ultimately, at some point, after I had turned 30, I picked my head up and took stock of my surroundings. Charleston Waterkeeper had become far greater than anything I could have initially envisioned, and there existed an incredible strength of support around the organization. Our programs were making tangible impacts on protecting our local waterways, and the team we had assembled — from our volunteers and staff to our board members — was equally as committed to the cause as I was on day one. This realization was liberating and offered me, for the first time, an allowance to think beyond my role with Charleston Waterkeeper and to consider the other interests I had kept at bay while building the organization. Enter Seaborn, and eventually, the oyster.
CP: Tell me about how you’re differentiating yourself from other oystermen. How is Seaborn different?
CB: Within six months of leaving Charleston Waterkeeper I had gained my commercial fishing license and was getting my ass kicked on waters from McClellanville to Cape Cod Bay. Certainly there are far tougher, more seasoned oystermen out there than me. But in my time on the water — whether through Charleston Waterkeeper or now with Seaborn — I’ve recognized a commonality between most watermen. Passion. Anyone who commits his or her life to this line of work does so because of love. Love for nature, love for the satisfaction of earning a living with one’s hands, and love of the independence brought by the sea. I feel incredibly humbled to be a part of this community, and I recognize daily the depth of knowledge I have still to learn.
As for Seaborn, our goal is to produce and distribute the highest quality oysters possible, while strengthening our community’s connection to the natural world.
Harvesting oysters in Charleston is nothing new. Neither is oyster farming. However, I believe we have a real opportunity at the moment to champion our native, southern oyster. South Carolina has one of the last remaining wild oyster populations on the planet, and I believe this is reason to celebrate.
The scrappy cluster oyster that has come to represent the Lowcountry’s shellfish identity is but one variety that our tidal waters have the potential to produce. However, for better or worse, it’s the only oyster most people know when they think of a South Carolina oyster. Our goal is to change that.
At Seaborn, we’re producing two varieties of wild, South Carolina oysters on our farm behind Sullivan’s Island and will be introducing a third variety soon. We have a second location on the North Edisto River and are eager to share our development with that site as it progresses. Using a range of farming techniques at both locations, and optimizing nuanced environmental conditions at each, we’re excited to produce a southern oyster worth celebrating, here and afar.
I’ve been inspired by other watermen up and down the East Coast who have committed their operations to quality, freshness, and transparency, and I’m proud to be driven by those same fundamental principles as we work to build our business.
CP: Why oysters? What is it about them that made you choose to farm them?
CB: The oyster exists at the intersection of so much that inspires me. I grew up in coastal New England and was always intrigued by the commercial fishing industry. During my time with Charleston Waterkeeper, I was exposed to the incredible ecological value oysters provide. Beyond that, oysters are this amazingly democratic source of food. Throughout time, they’ve been consumed and enjoyed by every level of society. Oysters are deeply ingrained in the culture and traditions of a place (just look at the Lowcountry’s affinity for oyster roasts). And finally, as it relates to food, the oyster is one of the most nutritious, efficient sources of protein on the planet, having, ultimately, a net positive impact on the environment.
Starting Seaborn has placed me at the center of these colliding worlds — nature, community, history, culture, and food.
CP: You mentioned some legislation possibly in the works to change oyster-harvesting laws in S.C. Can you explain that to me and what’s happening with that?
CB: The Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) has recently approved new language to regulate the harvest and handling of oysters year-round. Currently, oyster harvesting is limited to the months between October 1 and May 15. These existing regulations were designed to protect human health and the propagation of our wild oyster population over the years.
However, with the advent of modern refrigeration and the explosion of aquaculture (producing farm-raised oysters from hatchery seed), new regulations are warranted.
But there are two important takeaways to note. First, the approved language to allow summer harvest of oysters has not yet been presented to the state legislator. Secondly, the new regulations will likely pertain only to farm-raised triploid oysters—a sexless oyster with three chromosomes—and not to our wild oyster population. Triploid oysters do not exhaust themselves in the summer months as is the case with most wild (diploid) oysters, ultimately remaining plump and meaty year-round. Any passage of year-round harvest will come with strict measures to ensure public safety and quality of product.
CP: During your work, you instituted many programs to monitor our waterways. So now that you’ve left, how are they doing? Seeing them from the other side, the quality of oysters is a good indicator of water quality. Is Charleston doing better in that regard?
CB: Water quality is a cumulative symptom of a lot of moving pieces. In the nearly 10 years since starting Charleston Waterkeeper, I’ve certainly seen a dramatic increase in Charleston’s overall environmental literacy and engagement. That’s a huge win and has the greatest potential to result in cleaner water.
A community that cares about the quality of its natural resources will ultimately recognize a shared responsibility to ensure its protection. For this reason, the more oyster farms, the more fishing guides, the more nature tours, the more public docks, the better. Each of these activities only strengthens our shared commitment to clean water and helps hold our community accountable to prioritize its protection.
As for oysters as an indicator of water quality, absolutely, but even more so, they serve as an indicator of our relationship with nature. Oysters are the canary in the coal mine. In the 19th century we had thriving oyster beds in Charleston Harbor. Not so much anymore. However, we’ve managed to hold onto a significant portion of our wild oyster population — thanks in part to tempered development patterns and effective management by the Department of Natural Resources.
But despite our region’s obvious love for its local waterways, our local oysters still reveal examples of blatant ignorance. On the west side of the peninsula, the proposed WestEdge/Horizon Development seeks to bury Gadsden Creek — the last remaining urban tidal creek in the city’s Old Historic District. A walk along Gadsden Creek quickly reveals a thriving ecosystem with dense oyster beds and dozens of species of marine life. Charleston is growing and so too must its landscape, I get that, but not at the expense of our natural resources and not at the expense of future generations.
South Carolina has one of the last remaining, native oyster populations on the planet. Let’s celebrate that, and do all we can to strengthen that reality, not weaken it. Having an apartment-lined parking garage doesn’t make a place unique or special, but having a thriving oyster population in the heart of one of the greatest cities on Earth does. Let’s not be stupid.
CP: What’s the future for oyster farming in Charleston look like? What role do you see Seaborn Oyster Co. playing within the industry?
CB: We’re on the cusp of an exciting new chapter in South Carolina, but if we expect to build a legitimate, professional, and competitive industry on par with New England or the Pacific Northwest, as watermen, we must recognize we’re all in this together. How we act, how we handle our product, and how we present our oysters to the world, reflects on all of us and on our state’s entire industry at-large.
Charleston’s culinary revolution has elevated the bar for quality and the demand for high-end oysters still far outpaces the supply. The future of oyster farming in Charleston will work to address that. You’re already beginning to see an influx of interest in oyster farming by a new generation of watermen, myself included.
With Seaborn Oyster Company, we’ll focus our efforts on producing the best oysters possible and creating unique experiences to connect our community to the natural world.