Diversifying and adapting to change with UGA experts to help is key for coastal businesses

Orders come in overnight by emails and through messages left on Charlie Phillips’ phone.

By 7:30 a.m., he’s behind the desk in his cramped office-its walls papered with maps of Georgia barrier islands and marshes-entering orders by hand on a paper spread sheet.

A restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, wants about 1,600 clams, while a regular customer on Long Island orders 3,000 to 5,000. By midday Phillips has taken orders for tens of thousands of clams, all farm-raised in the mud flats adjacent to Sapelo Island.

While he logs in the orders, employees on the dock wash the small clams that have just been pulled from the marsh in their mesh grow-out bags. Other employees gently empty baskets of harvested clams into a machine that will sort and route them by size into color-coded bags that will be packaged in boxes lined with bubble wrap. Then the clams will be shipped to businesses from south Florida to Canada.

Pivoting with the market

A second-generation Georgia fisherman, Phillips began shrimping as a teenager alongside his father, and later captained the boat when he took over the business. When the shrimp industry began to take a hit in the 1980s, he explored other opportunities. He replaced Blackbeard, his shrimp boat that caught fire and sank, with snapper boats.

But then a study showed overfishing had severely diminished the red snapper population in the Atlantic Ocean, and government regulations effectively closed red snapper fishing.

Phillips already had been exploring aquaculture, and had taken UGA Marine Extension up on its offer of grow-out clam seed for fishers looking to diversify their investments.

By 2009, he was in full production, harvesting 500,000 clams annually. Last year, his harvest was 2 million.

 

A long history of struggle

Spend time with the boat captains who have worked the waters off the coast of Georgia for decades, and they’ll regale you with stories about the good old days, back in the 1960s and ’70s, when fuel was cheap and shrimp were plentiful. Back then, shrimp sold for up to $7 a pound.

In those days, there were more than 60 shrimp boats working the Georgia coast, bringing in upwards of 6 million pounds of shrimp a year, said Marty Higgins, a marine resource specialist for UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant and first mate on the R/V (Research/Vessel) Georgia Bulldog.

The industry struggled in the 1980s, as fuel prices increased and foreign countries began exporting farm raised shrimp that sold for much less than the fresh shrimp from the Atlantic. Boats went out of business, commercial docks closed. Businesses supported by the fishing industry left town.

 

From boat repairs to financial planning

UGA Marine Extension became the go-to stop for a variety of needs. Higgins, marine resources specialist Herbert “Truck” McIver and Lindsey Parker, captain of the R/V Georgia Bulldog, sewed holes in fishing nets, welded parts back onto boats, and fixed mechanical issues when they could, so that the shrimpers could get back on the water as quickly as possible.

Marine resources specialists in Brunswick held a net-mending class for shrimpers during the winter.

Consultants from the UGA Small Business Development Center offered workshops to help fishers make financial projections and plan for the future.

Looking toward the future, Bryan Fluech, associate director of Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, and McIver are working with McIntosh County Academy and Coastal Pines Technical College to develop a career academy program for high school students who want to pursue a career in commercial fishing. The program will address essential subjects that will better prepare participants to serve as crew members aboard commercial fishing boats in the region or possibly work in other maritime-related industries.

New on the menu: jelly balls

Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant also helps fishers expand into other areas.

For example, Georgia shrimpers, who have boats with sturdy reinforced hulls, can make money by catching and selling cannonball jellyfish, a seafood delicacy in some Asian countries.

In 2002, entrepreneur Terry Chuang decided to take advantage of the abundant cannonball jellies in the south Atlantic, and he opened a jelly ball processing plant in Darien, about 40 miles north of Brunswick.

At 6 cents a pound, the shrimpers have to catch a lot of jellyfish to make money. But it’s fairly easy work. They scoop the jellies up in their nets and drop them off at the dock. An ambitious boat captain can catch 110,000 pounds, earning $6,600, every other day, said April Harper, who manages the plant where they dry and salt the jellies before exporting them to Japan and China.

“A boat that normally would be sitting at the dock for six months is now active 12 months out of the year,” Harper said.

The UGA Food Product Innovation and Commercialization Center (Food PIC) also bought some for product development on a project proposal using jelly balls, said Kirk Kealey, FoodPIC director.

 

Another option: oysters

UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant offered another opportunity to diversify in 2015 with the launch of an oyster hatchery on Skidaway Island. About 10 people working in the fishing industry were given oyster seed, or spat, created at the hatchery, to grow out to maturity as single shell oysters.

The 5 to 6 million spat, produced as of this year, are expected to have a harvest value of $1 million to $1.2 million.

At Sapelo Sea Farms, Charlie Phillips also is growing oysters. They take more time and effort than clams and so far he doesn’t make much money off it, but he’s open to learning more about.

After all, he found his niche in growing clams when UGA began introducing that option to Georgia fishers in the late 1990s. There was a learning curve then, too. Today, he can buy 1.3 million clam seeds from South Carolina for $15,000. With a 40-50 percent yield, the harvest value is roughly $100,000.

“I diversified, which most people did not,” Phillips said. “If you don’t, you’re toast. I would not be in the clam business if it weren’t for Marine Extension.”