These Point aux Pins oysters were among the best Gulf oysters I’ve eaten lately. They were grown from hatchery spat in racks off the bottom of Mobile Bay, and like most farm-raised oysters, they had perfectly formed shells. As for the flavor, they were incredibly briny (42 to nearly 50 parts per thousand salinity). I want to taste these again later in the season when they get a little plumper and sweeter. As usual, Texas lags way behind the rest of the Gulf oyster industry when it comes to innovative programs. That’s because our state regards oysters as a nuisance that get in the way of the oil and gas biz.
Dr. John “Soup” Supan told me about these tests of oyster farming concepts at LSU in Louisiana and Auburn in Alabama last January. Oyster farming is going to play a big role in the future of the Gulf oyster business–and oyster appellations (place names) are going to be a big part of it. Bill Walton at Auburn University is already turning out some amazing oysters in Mobile Bay. If the oil spill had threatened, these oysters could have been easily removed from the threatened area.
I wrote to Walton to tell him how much I liked his oysters and ask him for details. Here’s his reply:
Hey Robb, Glad you got to sample some. Not sure where to start but these are the first harvest from one of three commercial demonstration farms (all operated with private collaborators) we’re setting up under a Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium project. If all goes to plan, we’ll have three oyster farms bringing oysters to market next fall. These oysters are grown with Steve Crocket and are his Point aux Pins (a small peninsula west of Bayou la Batre that forms the eastern boundary of Grand Bay). These oysters are from our 2009 hatchery spawn. We were lucky enough to not see any effects of the oil spill up where Steve’s site is. We also got some funding in a team project with John Supan to try and get two ‘block grants’ (a group of small off-bottom oyster farms grouped together), one each in LA and AL, sited and up and running over the next three years.
It’d be worth checking with John Supan, but to the best of my knowledge these are the only off-bottom farmed oysters available from the Gulf right now. (It has been done in the past, as Chris Nelson of Bon Secour Fisheries at least has done it.)
Here’s an official statement on the experiment:
…Oyster farmers using intensive, off-bottom methods focus on producing a steady supply of consistently premium oysters for the lucrative half shell niche market. A number of hurdles have hindered the growth of this industry within the region. As part of an expanding effort to overcome these hurdles for farmed oysters in Alabama and the region broadly, faculty at Auburn University are addressing the identification of possible niche markets, the potential for regional appellations as a marketing tool, and pre- or post-harvest treatments by the farmers to ensure food safety. In parallel with this effort, it is essential to provide beginning and prospective oyster farmers concrete, locally-derived quantitative production and economic data to address the where, what and how of oyster farming.
The goal of this work, funded by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, is to quantitatively compare oyster aquaculture practices at coastal sites in Alabama to determine the most viable combination of methods, providing guidance to current and prospective oyster farmers in the North Central Gulf of Mexico region. Specifically, working with three current Alabama oyster lease holders, we propose to 1) identify optimal sites for the nursery culture of hatchery-reared oyster seed along the Alabama coastline by deploying oyster seed at seven sites in the summer and fall of 2010 and 2011 to measure average daily growth and mortality rates, 2) compare the performance of native triploid (putatively sterile) oysters to half-sibling diploid oysters at the three lease sites planted in the fall and spring over 11-16 month grow-out periods to analyze differences in growth, survival, yield and condition index, 3) test and compare the effect of four different types of commercially available oyster culture equipment on oyster growth, survival and yield to market size (and the interaction of gear with ploidy) with oysters deployed in the fall and spring, and 4) determine the costs of production of the various combinations of production strategies tested here, and identify the least cost approach to intensive farming of oysters for each lease holder and prospective oyster farmers in the region.
This project relies on and promotes close collaboration with the industry participants and develops immediately applicable information (e.g., growth rates, mortality rates, costs of production, etc.) and ‘hands on’ experience. Additionally, the proposed project would create three working oyster farms along the Alabama coast, which can serve as demonstration sites for others in the region, supporting development of this industry broadly throughout the North Central Gulf of Mexico region.”