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.

Shooting for upscale market

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.

Diverse product

“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.”