It all started with an oyster garden.
The tradition began five years ago. After a day of kayaking along the Indian River Lagoon, Dennis David and his family would stop for fresh oysters. They’d eat them together and the smaller oysters got tossed back.
“We would do family kayak trips to go fishing and just enjoy the water with our kids and grandkids,” says David. “We always schedule time on our way paddling to stop at our favorite wild oyster reefs to collect oysters for us to eat.”
After a while, they noticed oysters clustering where they would deposit the smaller ones not worth eating.
“Lo and behold, there were a bunch of oysters there,” David says.
The garden got David’s daughter and son-in-law — Jessica and Ryan Norris — thinking. At one point, they had wanted to open a restaurant in the New Smyrna Beach area. Upon seeing the watery garden of oysters, they thought, “why not try our hand at oyster farming?”
David, a wildlife biologist with a 30-plus year career with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, liked the idea. His son-in-law had a biology degree and background as a food inspector, giving the family a leg up when it came to diving into the oyster farming world.
Together, the family embarked on founding the Indian River Oyster Company (IROC) in New Smyrna Beach.
These days, IROC’s “garden” is now acres wide.
Unlike typical oysters grown near the bottom of the ocean floor, the Triploid oysters planted and farmed by IROC float at the top in a plastic-type mesh bag.
“Oysters are filter feeders,” explains David. “They depend on sunlight for growth and energy.”
The company’s floating farm is located on two sites leased from the State of Florida. One site is 2.5-acres and the other is a 5-acre site. Over the two sites, they planted over half a million oysters in 2022 alone, David says.
At least once a week, the medium-sized operation harvests 3-inch long oysters. Some weeks are busier than others — like the weeks they have to pull 15,000 oysters out of the water. It all depends on wholesale orders from the dozens of local restaurants that work with IROC as a supplier.
The oysters often travel afar. Currently, boxes of oysters are shipped as far as Memphis and Atlanta. IROC is also certified to ship oysters worldwide.
The demand for IROC’s oysters is always there, says Nicholas Frame, an assistant manager and line cook at Off the Hook Raw Bar and Grill. He’s also a part-time farmhand for IROC.
“A lot of people are shocked we even have an edible oyster coming from Florida,” says Frame. “People lean heavily on the misinformation on how only “true oysters” come from cold waters.”
Frame says a taste of IROC’s farmed oysters usually leaves them satisfied with their menu choice. Depending on a diner’s preference, oysters are enjoyed in a variety of ways.
“Eating habits include everything from mignonette (minced onion and red wine vinegar), cocktail, horseradish on crackers, raw, steamed…there’s really no wrong way to eat them,” he says. “But the general consensus is they’re one of the best.”
In Florida alone, there are 38 shellfish harvesting areas spread over 1.3 million acres. Each area is in one of five districts monitored by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). Employees from FDACS monitor shellfish harvesting areas for bacteria and also ensure shellfish harvesting areas are correctly classified.
While IROC feeds the community, it’s also feeding a thriving ecosystem underwater. As one of the most bio-diverse habitats in North America, the Indian River Lagoon has also been designated an Estuary of National Significance by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“Oysters play a significant role in the health of our estuaries and serve as keystone species in the Indian River Lagoon,” explains Tess Sailor-Tynes, Marine Discovery Center conservation science coordinator. “Aside from being a food source for many estuarine species, they provide incredible ecosystem services by filtering nutrients from the system, ultimately offering a healthy home to the 4,300 species of the Indian River Lagoon.”
Because of that, IROC takes the health of all oysters — and the Indian River Lagoon — seriously.
“We’re very strict about our handling of oysters,” says David, who is also chairman of the Florida Shellfish Aquaculture Association. “They’re removing algae; they’re pulling in carbon. In terms of enhancing water quality, they’re doing a great job. Shellfish are beneficial in helping filter that water and trying to recover the quality of the water — both oysters and clams.”
David says educating others about water quality around the lagoon is part of the company’s mission. Luckily, red tide hasn’t impacted the business, but other water quality issues have, like algae blooms.
As a farm helper, Frame agrees.
“The waters are so important to us; our product is 100% dependent on healthy living conditions,” says Frame. “Oysters do what coral reefs do out in the ocean: they create environments for tons of species to thrive off of. Our farms act as a filtration system for the lagoon, and we have thriving wildlife in our area because our community makes very conscious efforts to ensure the natural beauty and ecosystem stay clean.”
One unique public outreach tool IROC uses includes farm tours, an intimate kayaking experience. The tour includes information about the lagoon, oysters, and even an oyster tasting.
Another educational opportunity is IROC’s partnership with Marine Discovery Center (MDC) through its Shuck & Share program. Established in 2014, MDC partners with local restaurants to put discarded oyster shells into shoreline restoration projects instead of landfills.
Weekly, MDC volunteers pick up buckets filled with empty oyster shells. The shells then head into “quarantine” for six months to dry out any foreign bacteria before being placed into plastic-free, double galvanized mesh wire bags. Since its inception, over 700,000 pounds of oyster shells have been used for shoreline restoration.
“The program relies on community efforts, from restaurants to volunteers to restoration practitioners, but it’s a simple way to give back using resources that are readily available,” Sailor-Tynes says.
If it weren’t for businesses like IROC, oyster ecosystems would look quite different.
Unfortunately, a steady decline in water quality along with unsustainable harvesting has led to a reduction in oyster reef habitats, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“It’s a secret that people don’t realize how much we’ve lost in oysters,” says David, who is also on a committee dedicated to developing a statewide oyster plan to restore oyster estuaries.
And while he has a business that is still trying to get back to its pre-pandemic sales, David says he has nothing but encouragement for fellow oyster farmers. For him, thriving oyster farmers and happy customers are the keys to a successful business in these waters.
“We don’t consider other oyster farmers the competition,” he says. “All ships rise on an incoming tide.”