A Revolution in Southern Farmed Oysters

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A boom in the farming of oysters on the Gulf of Mexico is helping restaurateurs re-conceive the supply chain — while also opening up new flavors.

By Wyatt Williams

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Consider the oyster. (Photo: Thaddaeus McAdams/Getty Images)

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This week, Pacific Standard

looks at the global seafood industry — how it’s responding to class, consumer trends, and a new climate.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Brian Rackley ate oysters for breakfast. He slipped a little knife into the neck and popped the shell, cut the foot. He took in a long, deep breath, quietly considering the bivalve’s aromatics, and slurped the thing out of the shell. After a moment’s thought, he scribbled a couple of words in a Moleskine notebook: “Driftwood, Shrimp Bisque.”

Rackley runs the oyster program at Kimball House, a restaurant that occupies a former train station in Atlanta, Georgia. It is a fine place, where diners sit in tufted leather booths and order caviar service and cocktails that arrive in chilled, antique glassware. The oyster menu that Rackley maintains is suitably elaborate, an ever-changing list of 20-odd varieties of oysters sourced from across the continent: Puget Sound, Washington, to Edgecomb, Maine.

Rackley eats oysters for breakfast, before even a cup of coffee, so that his palate will be unadulterated when he writes his tasting notes, those subtle distinctions of flavor and aroma that help his customers navigate the qualities of oysters. His notebook is filled with little phrases and lists of words: “citrus, lettuce & cucumber”; “celery salted wild mushroom”; “cedar and spinach”; “rich clay & minerals, perfect with Muscadet.”

Oysters are a finicky business. Those subtle distinctions in flavor can be erased into blandness by a heavy rain. They can take years to produce but days to spoil. The vagaries of water and air temperatures, the complicated seasonal intersections of rainfall and tides, all the uncontrollable whims of nature conspire to affect oyster production. Rackley is constantly changing his menu to accommodate new oysters, removing unavailable ones.

The most notable change on Rackley’s menu, though, is the growing presence of farmed oysters from the Gulf of Mexico. High-end oyster bars have long depended on well-known oyster farms like Hama Hama, Island Creek, and others where oyster farming techniques go back decades, if not longer.

The vanguard of farmed Gulf oysters represents both a re-making of the supply chain, and also something like a culinary re-invention.

Around 100 years ago, pollution and marked population decline among wild oyster colonies began encouraging the development of oyster farms on both coasts. Unlike the old-fashioned way of harvesting in the wild — which can require as little as a skiff and a rake and a knowledge of the beds — oyster farming developed a sophisticated infrastructure: hatcheries where oyster seed can be cultivated, line and basket cultivation techniques that shape the oyster’s shell, distribution chains that rapidly move the shells cross-country. Rackley drives to the Atlanta airport once a week, where he picks up oysters flown in overnight from across the country. Less than 48 hours after they’re pulled from the water, he’s got the oysters on the table — no matter where they’re from.

Populations of wild oysters persisted along the Gulf Coast for much longer than they did on the coasts, but even that has changed dramatically in recent years. Whether that’s the result of fallout from environmental disasters like the BP Horizon spill, the devastation of storms including Hurricane Katrina, or the fight for river water that has entangled Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, the results are indisputable: The ground catch of oysters has declined as much 70 percent in certain areas of Louisiana. The end-of-season oyster population in Apalachicola Bay has been estimated to be as little as 10 percent of what it was a decade ago.

Farming oysters requires more work and investment than harvesting wild populations, of course, but it also allows for more control of the final product. Wild Gulf oysters are known for being big, unwieldy, meaty things, the kind of oyster that might need a heavy douse of cocktail sauce and a Saltine cracker to help it down. Next to the dainty, smooth cups served at Kimball House, they can appear a little unsophisticated. “For me, it’s too much texture,” Rackley says. “Not to mention, you eat with your eyes first. If it looks big and ugly, it might taste that way.”

In this way, the vanguard of farmed Gulf oysters represents both a re-making of the supply chain, and also something like a culinary re-invention. Bill Walton, an associate professor at the Auburn University School of Fisheries who worked with shellfish in the northeast before moving to Alabama, started seeing more interest in farmed Gulf oysters among commercial oyster companies and restaurants after 2009. That’s when Point aux Pines, a Bayou la Batre-based oyster farm, started producing plump, teardrop-shaped oysters, as refined as any oyster coming from the coasts.

“We just said, ‘let’s not re-invent the wheel.’ We brought in four types of gear from around the world and figured out which ones worked best for the farmer on the Gulf,” Walton says. “In the Gulf, we have very productive waters. Oysters want to grow, but so does everything else.”

The persistence of the Gulf oyster is a clue to the crop’s economic virtues. Oysters raised in the cold water of Canadian Maritimes can take as many as five years to reach market weight. Those warm, productive Gulf waters, on the other hand, can produce the same market weight in less than a year — but it can also clog up farming gear designed for cooler climes. Walton took a combination of techniques and gear common in Canada and Australia and helped develop new approaches to Gulf oysters, which spurred farmed populations in the Gulf; since 2009, 13 oyster farms, two gear suppliers, and an oyster nursery have opened in Alabama alone. The Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory runs a hatchery that keeps millions of oyster seeds in the supply chain each year. Farms like Murder Point, Point aux Pins, and Mobile Island Co. have seen national attention from restaurateurs, from connoisseurs, from the press.

The results of this revolution could be a re-imagining of what a Gulf Oyster means, in terms of both the production chain and the final oyster on the plate.

Which is not to say the problems with Gulf oysters have been resolved. “This winter sucked,” Walton says. “In October, we had a red tide — a harmful algal bloom — that came over from Florida.” Between rainfall closures and safety concerns about the algae, oyster farmers were only able to harvest three weeks over a period of six months. “I’m hoping this is one of those ‘once every 15 years’ situations,” Walton says.

Lane Zirlott, who runs Murder Point Oysters with his family, says, “We’re growing them in cages, but they’re still a wild animal.” The family, he says, has so far invested roughly a million dollars. The months of closure were tough. “We took everything we had and put it into something we love, but we had the brakes put on us by mother nature.” That hasn’t shaken Zirlott’s confidence, though. They’ve got 800,000 oysters in the water now and expect to put in 1.6 million oyster seeds next year.

The model adopted in Alabama is spreading throughout the region. As Rackley explains it: “Alabama was out in front, but Florida is about to explode.” The Wakulla Environmental Institute has been training and helping outfit a wave of new oyster farmers in Apalachee Bay, just east of the much-storied oyster beds of Apalachicola. In Louisiana, a cluster of oyster farms in Grand Isle are doing much the same.

The results in the coming years could be a re-imagining of what a Gulf Oyster means, in terms of both the production chain and the final oyster on the plate. Further, if the growing abundance of farmed oysters can relieve the pressure of demand, those wild populations of big, meaty Gulf oysters could have a chance to recover. Everyone wins.

I had assumed that, at the end of this chain, at the bar in Kimball House where Rackley was getting ready to shuck open oysters from Isle Dauphine for $2.85 a piece, would represent a tidy profit for the restaurant too. I was wrong.

“Oh, no,” Rackley says. “We don’t make much money on the oysters, but they do help sell cocktails.”

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