April 2014
Farm & Field

Aw, Shucks

Scott Rikard explains that fall is typically the most popular time of the year to eat oysters as that is when they are at their peak flavor and quality.  

Alabama could be as well known for its farmed oysters as its catfish industry.

When it comes to aquaculture, Alabama may be known for its catfish production, but with the efforts of faculty and staff at the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory Alabama may soon be known for its farmed oysters.

Off-bottom oyster farming aimed at the premium half-shell markets in the United States, until recently, has primarily occurred along the Atlantic Northeast and in the Pacific Northwest. The Gulf Coast has been known for volume production of oysters from wild harvest or extensive bottom farming targeting less valuable shucked product or volume half-shell markets. But storms, drought and predator concerns in recent years have led to less consistent supplies of bottom-harvested oysters. This has presented an opportunity to establish a niche market for off-bottom farming aimed at the premium half-shell market.

According to Dr. Bill Walton, research professor and Extension specialist at AUSL, oysters farmed off-bottom are high-quality, single oysters.

"There has been somewhat of an oyster renaissance the last few years, many restaurants are starting to have special oyster menus like they have for wine selection," Walton said.

Oysters grown on the bottom in the wild often are stuck together in clumps and must be broken apart when harvested. These oysters are typically sent to shucking houses where they are sold in large containers that can be found in your grocery store or are sold to restaurants for cooking purposed in entrées like fried oyster dinners or po-boys.

  Each long-line cage can hold about 75 oysters. The average lifespan of the cage is 5 years. These are best suited for smaller oysters. Oysters take between 9-12 months to reach harvestable size. Some producers harvest year-round and others harvest seasonally.

"Farmed oysters are a niche market; it is not about producing truckloads, it is more about producing a high-quality product for the half-shell raw market and trying to get top dollar for it," explained Scott Rikard, shellfish hatchery manager at AUSL.

Researchers at Auburn University like Walton and Rikard are promoting the practice of using the off-bottom production methods. By raising the oysters in bags and cages suspended off-bottom and up in the water column where they are able to flourish and produce a more desirable and consistent product for the high-end raw market.

Previous attempts in the early 1990s in Alabama to farm oysters were fraught with problems associated with fouling organisms such as barnacles, mussels and seaweed. The rich prolific waters of the Gulf promote the growth of the fouling organisms and, at the time, there was no easy way to control the fouling on the gear and the oysters. The bags had to be lifted onto a boat and power washed – a very labor-intensive, time-consuming and costly process.

But new advances in gear technology have greatly aided fouling control efforts. Two gear types promoted by the Auburn researchers - the adjustable long line system and floating cage system - allow the oysters to be brought above water once a week for a few hours. The oysters are able to withstand being out of the water for short periods of time, but recently set fouling organisms growing on the gear and oysters are killed by drying in the sun. It takes just a few hours to raise the gear and lower the gear each week, and has dramatically reduced the labor required for oyster farming according to Rikard.

Walton sees shellfish production as being very sustainable.

Left to right, long-line systems like the one shown here are typically 100 yards in length. The baskets are clipped to lines below the water so they stay submerged until they are brought above water to kill foul growing on the cages. Floating cage systems are best for larger oysters and each cage can hold around 150 oysters. They are anchored to the bottom and are flipped once a week to expose the foul to sunlight.

"We do not have to feed, medicate or fertilize the oysters. We essentially take advantage of Mother Nature; she provides the food and flavor to the oysters while the power of the sun controls fouling on the product. Phytoplankton in the sea serves as their food. As land continues to be taken up and we look to ocean farming, shellfish will be a great commodity that can be sustainably produced in our coastal waters," Walton explained.

Seeing as oyster farming does not require a lot of inputs, it might sound cheap and easy to go into the oyster business; however, equipment, labor and permitting cost can be barriers to entry into the business, so not just anyone can do it. Also, because oysters live in water, you must have access to the water and you must have an interest in working on the water.

Those working at the AUSL in Mobile County are looking at off-bottom oyster farming as a way to add new opportunities for coastal residents, bring in revenue and create jobs. Walton has started a program to train those interested in starting oyster farms. Through a National Sea Grant, the Oyster Farming Fundamentals Training Program was established offering 15 hours of coursework and hands-on training.

Those program participants have the opportunity to experience oyster farming from the hatchery to harvesting, spawning to assembling gear. Each participant is loaned a 100-yard run of gear and is responsible for raising approximately 25,000 small oysters. This allows participants to really see if they want to invest in oyster farming.

"Out of the nine participants we had in the first program last year, two realized it was not for them while the remaining seven are looking to establish their own farms in the near future," Walton said.

AUSL is working with the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama to foster the program. Participants in the program are required to be Mobile County residents; this ensures, when hurricanes and severe storms are coming, the caretakers are nearby to secure the equipment. Also, priority is given to those have been involved in the seafood business in 3 of the last 5 years.

Finally, they are looking for people who have an entrepreneurial spirit. The wild harvest of oysters has been a tough industry for fishermen over the last few years and not reliable enough for a full-time venture. However, participants who complete the program have the opportunity to start their oyster farms on 2 acres of Auburn’s enterprise area located in the Mississippi Sound. This reduces some of the hurdles of waterfront acquisition and permitting costs associated with starting a farm.

Taking part in the program allows for gaining valuable experience, versus going it alone.

According to Rikard, "The training program allows you to see the proper way to establish a farm, handle the gear and oysters, and potential problems you may face up front before deciding to get into the business."

Alabama currently has four operational farms that are permitted and are harvesting this season. There are 6 acres currently in production with all the producers planning to expand. Two of this year’s program participants are in the process of obtaining permits to go into the oyster farming business. According to Walton, production this year was around 500,000 oysters in the last season. With the new growers starting and the first class of the training program finished, he believes Alabama may potentially raise 1 million oysters next year.

"This method is not intended to compete with the wild harvest of oysters from public reefs. Off-bottom oyster farming adds another option for the seafood industry that can create jobs and support local businesses. Alabama is currently number one in the Gulf region for off-bottom oyster production and there is still room for growth," Walton said.

If you need another reason to head to the Gulf Coast and order a dozen on the half shell, now you have one. You can enjoy your oysters knowing it is extremely possible that your oysters were raised right here in Alabama’s coastal waters and are supporting local economies along the Gulf Coast. Oyster farming is a new, but bright, spot in Alabama’s $70.4 billion dollar agricultural economy.

Anna Leigh Peek is a freelance writer from Auburn.