Bill Walton is not the first seafood expert to reflect on one of the great ironies of Gulf Coast oyster production.

The Gulf is known as the Fertile Crescent of seafood, particularly oysters. Early European explorers of the region even claimed that oysters grew on trees, which was true in a sense because oysters were observed growing on mangrove tree roots in the tidal zones.

In 2008, more than 23 million pounds of oysters — $82.5 million worth — were harvested off the Gulf Coast, representing almost 90 percent of the total U.S. harvest, Walton says.

Yet while providing the overwhelming bulk of the nation’s oyster harvest, the Gulf generates only about 73 percent of the total U.S value.

Therein lies the irony, says Walton, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System fisheries specialist and Auburn University assistant professor of fisheries and aquaculture. Despite the Gulf’s immense capacity for providing oysters, it is still struggling to extract the most value from them.

Walton was served a stark reminder of this irony dining at the upscale Southern Steak and Oyster Bar last February in Nashville.

“The raw oysters listed on the menu, ranked from the most expensive to the cheapest, featured chic names — Kumamoto oysters from the Pacific Northwest selling for $45 a dozen, Beausoleil oysters from New Brunswick priced at $36 a dozen, and Wellfleets from Cape Cod offered at $30 a dozen, to name a few,” Walton recalls.

The cheapest, Apalachicola oysters, were from the Gulf Coast — and listed at a mere $18 a dozen.

Walton wasn’t surprised. Based on a five-year average, from 2006 through 2010, East Coast oysters sold for an average $33.67 a pound, while Gulf Coast oysters fetched a paltry $3.17 a pound.

“We’re primarily a commodity market,” he says. “Most of what we harvest on the Gulf is put into sacks and taken to shucking houses where they’re opened and the meat harvested and placed in containers and sold that way.”

While not condemning this strategy, Walton contends that it prevents the region from capitalizing fully on this bountiful resource.