He is advancing off-bottom farmed oysters as a way to ensure that more Gulf oysters end up in upscale restaurants where they can fetch a higher price.

Walton should know. In addition to holding a doctorate in aquaculture, he once farmed oysters in Cape Cod, one of several regions throughout the country that have developed the so-called boutique oysters that sell in upscale restaurants.

Off-bottom-farmed oysters have many of the characteristics associated with boutique oysters. Raising these oysters in mesh containers above the seafloor not only eliminates burial in sediment but also better protects the oysters from what’s known as fouling — damage from aquatic organisms such algae and barnacles.

Moreover, the growing conditions associated with these methods typically improve shell shape and overall appearance while increasing product consistency.

What prevents the Gulf Coast oyster industry from developing such a model? Ironically, the remarkably productive waters of the Gulf, which, in addition to providing ideal conditions for rapid oyster growth, also provide ideal conditions for organisms that contribute to fouling.

Spawning conditions in Gulf water also result in thinner, more watery oyster meat.

However, new techniques that simulate low-tide effects expose oysters to air at various durations and frequencies, reducing many of the fouling effects that otherwise would keep them from being sold as boutique oysters, Walton says.

A well-established technique is also employed to raise oyster seed for farmers, he says.

“You bring the oysters when they’re ripe for spawning into a controlled environment, turn up the temperature, provide plenty of food, and they spawn for you because they think it’s the optimal time to do that.”

Walton calls this a Club Med for oysters.

The eggs and sperm are collected and the eggs fertilized in a predator-free environment.

The oysters that emerge are transferred to containers —baskets, bags or cages — and grown above the seafloor where they are protected from predators and the effects of burial in ocean-floor sediment and where they feed generously off single-celled algae called phytoplankton.  

What emerges is a product that is essentially organic and genetically diverse.