What is in this article?:
• 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.
• 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. Despite the Gulf’s immense capacity for providing oysters, it is still struggling to extract the most value from them.
“You’re not feeding these oysters and you’re not medicating them,” Walton says. “On the other hand, they’re not like salmon, spawned from only one carefully selected genetic line. Genetically speaking, they’re diverse.”
Two Gulf Coast residents have already waded into off-bottom farming.
Steve Crockett, a biostatistician by profession, first got interested in off-bottom farming while serving as a volunteer oyster gardener with the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program.
His branded Point aux Pins oysters have already secured a niche in several upscale restaurants. Starting with 30,000 oysters a few years ago, he hopes to increase his output to roughly 120,000 in the next couple of years.
Meanwhile, Cullan Duke, a trust attorney, has just deployed his first cages with the goal of turning out his first large harvest of what he’s dubbed Isle Dauphine oysters next fall.
Both agree that one of the biggest challenges is meeting all the requirements associated with farming oysters, which involves working with a veritable alphabet soup of state and federal agencies.
“For the most part, all of these agencies have been helpful, but all of this is as new a challenge for them as it is for us,” Crockett says. “Some of these agencies simply have to work through all of this.”
Aspiring Alabama oyster farmers also must acquire private oyster riparian rights either through the purchase of waterfront property or by leasing from someone who already has secured these rights.
Marketing and distribution issues must also be considered. Oyster harvesters are required to sell their product only through only licensed shellfish processors.
The fact that only four or five licensed processors operate in the state prompted Duke to become a certified processor and dealer under the company name Mobile Oyster Company. This allows him to sell directly to restaurants.
“That will enable me to harvest my oysters, process appropriately for optimal quality and sell them directly to a restaurant. The strategy should always be to provide the freshest product possible — essentially the aquaculture version of farm to table.”