Oysters, Alabama Style
In the wake of hurricanes and oil spills, oyster harvests in the Gulf of Mexico remain lower than ever, and conclusive explanations for the decline don’t exist. But down on the Alabama coast, a new breed of oysterman — a farmer, not a tonger — is rising. And their farming methods might help keep the Gulf’s oystering tradition alive.
It’s mid-morning in August in Alabama. The intense light from a high sun bounces off a small oyster’s shell, creating a pinprick twinkle dancing along a curved ridge across its middle as Portersville Bay laps at the sides of the skiff I’m sitting in, gently rocking it.
“Shined up real nice, right?” Brent Zirlott, owner of Sandy Bay Oyster Company, the farm that produces Murder Point oysters, cradles the oyster in his palm and hoists it up to catch the rays. He’s pulled a not-quite-grown bivalve from a basket off a line on his farm and given it a quick rinse in the water.
It is pretty. No mud or gunk, no barnacles marring the shell that’s almost as deep as it is wide. He slides the well-worn blade of an oyster knife into the hinge at the back and effortlessly (or so it seems) pops it open to reveal a plump mouthful of taupe-colored meat that jiggles like Jell-O when he sets it on the vinyl seat beside me.
He keeps talking about his farmed oysters, explaining, “We don’t grow ’em; we raise ’em,” and I keep writing, unaware that my snack's been stolen until Brent interrupts his soliloquy with a throaty laugh and “Bo-o! That’s not nice!” Brent’s constant companion, his oyster-loving Jack Russell terrier, Bo, has pilfered my oyster.
I was too busy taking notes on how Murder Point oysters got their name, listening to a tale of deadly rage that in 1926 led a man to take another’s life over oyster-harvesting rights on a low-lying finger of land that defines the outer edge of the bay not far from Brent’s farm. The incident gave the spot its sinister name, and the Zirlotts borrowed it, adding the tagline, “Oysters worth killing for.”
“He beat the guy with a baseball bat, set him up in a rocking chair, and then shot him,” Brent says. “You might not want to get that graphic. You could just say it didn’t end well.”
Brent grabs another oyster, shucks it and puts it right in my hand. “Eat it quick, or Bo’ll get it again.”
I do as I’m told. Only seconds out of the water, it’s soft and salty, rich and buttery. I bite down on the center, releasing a burst of briny flavor. My satisfaction with its taste is heightened by the visceral thrill of swallowing something still alive.
Standing in chest-deep water beside the boat, Dr. Bill Walton is watching me with noticeable envy. “Brent, my turn?” he says with hand outstretched.
Dr. Bill Walton showing off some of the Zirlotts' finest oysters.
“I love them,” Walton says, standing outside of the Auburn University Shellfish Lab at the Sea Lab on Alabama’s Dauphin Island. A few stray grays in his buzz cut and many more in his close-cropped beard play off the dark tan baked into his skin by years on the water. “I’ve never had an oyster I didn’t like. Big ones, small ones, salty and not so much.” The lustful gleam in his eye calls to mind the greedy walrus in Lewis Carroll’s poem. While that walrus was the villain, in Alabama’s oyster farming story, Walton is a hero.
Originally from New Jersey, the marine ecologist and his wife Beth, who’s the relationship manager for Murder Point Oysters, make a dynamic duo; they’re the oyster power couple in the state. (His Instagram handle is doctor_oyster; hers is gulfseafoodgirl.) They met doing aquaculture research on Cape Cod, where he also served as a shellfish constable.
“They called me the clam cop,” he says. “I did have a badge, but no gun. I enforced size and catch limits and helped make decisions like which areas needed to be closed to fishing and for how long.”
The Waltons moved South when he was offered a job at Auburn University as an assistant professor and marine fisheries extension specialist. He almost instantly began researching how to use the off-bottom oyster farming techniques he studied in Cape Cod — and used on his own small oyster farm — in Alabama’s warm, food-rich bays where the conditions are close to perfect.
Dr. Bill Walton, head of the Auburn University Shellfish Lab, standing among some of the spawning tanks at the Sea Lab on Alabama’s Dauphin Island.
Oysters are not new to Alabama; its waters do produce wild oysters, and it’s one of the largest oyster-processing states in the country, with an average of 1 million pounds processed annually. But many of these aren’t harvested in Alabama, and most are sold already shucked and packed, destined to be fried and piled on a po’ boy or cozied up next to a cup of slaw.
Coming to Alabama presented Walton an opportunity to put his passion and expertise behind a new industry that would bring jobs to an area hit hard by natural disasters, like hurricanes, and man-made ones, like the BP oil spill in 2010. Farmed oysters are not replacing wild oyster harvests but complementing them by creating “branded” oysters with an emphasis on quality (in taste and look) that appeals to those serving and eating oysters on the half-shell.
“It’s like Miller Lite versus microbrewed craft beer,” Walton says.
Friends and family up North were initially skeptical.
“They told us we’d be back, that this was just a stepping-stone job, right?” Walton says. “But we love it here. We were very pleasantly surprised by the beauty here and the warmth of the people,” he says. And the warmth of the weather. “Yeah. I hear folks down here complain about the heat, and it gets hot, but I’ll take that any day over some of the winters we had on the Cape.”
Walton talks with a neutral accent; he doesn’t necessarily sound like a Yankee, but with no Southern twang to round off the edges or drawl to slow it down, he speaks in quick chirpy clips, every word clear and crisp. He actually sounds like a scientist, a really happy, energetic scientist. “I think I’m doing something here that can really make a difference for the future of these communities,” he says.
Ask any of the 12 oyster farms in Alabama (the most anywhere currently in the Gulf Coast states), and they’ll tell you Walton and his team at the Shellfish Lab, including hatchery manager Scott Rikard, have already made a difference. As recently as 2008, off-bottom oyster farming on the Gulf Coast was just a new idea rolling around in the back of a few brains, and in others, a memory of failure. It had been done (and done well) in other places in the country like the Northeast, but not in the Deep South. Not successfully, that is. An attempt in the early ’90s in Alabama’s Bon Secour Bay worked from a biological standpoint, but the numbers never added up.
“Nobody could get a high enough price to make the labor worth it,” Walton says. “It’s tough work. And it was tougher then, some of the things they were doing.”
When Walton came to Alabama in 2009, it was time to try again.
“One of the main things we did was introduce air-drying to prevent bio-fouling, the growth of algae and other aquatic organisms that plug up the holes and impede water flow in the baskets oysters are growing in,” he says. “It is still a lot of work, but it is efficient, and is a lot less work than what they were doing before, taking each basket or cage out of the water and rinsing it,” he says.
Walton also helped determine consumer acceptance. “They couldn’t get the right price, so that was my first hurdle, to figure out if the region was ready for this,” he says.
It was. Walton learned that people were finally willing to pay a premium price for a premium oyster, boutique bivalves intended for the half-shell market. He helped Steve Crockett get his Point aux Pins farm started in Grand Bay in Bayou La Batre in 2009, and it became the first commercial oyster farm on the Gulf.
Next, he needed more people willing to raise them, so with help from the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and the National Sea Grant, the Shellfish Lab offered a class, Oyster Farming Fundamentals (OFF). The hands-on course gave its students the practical advice and training necessary to start and run an oyster farm. About halfway through, students were given 20,000 small oysters and loaned equipment with the assignment to grow them to maturity in the lab’s training waters in Portersville Bay. When the course was completed, if they wanted to keep going, they could start a pilot farm in one of the lab’s plots of water, an “oyster enterprise zone” also in Portersville Bay.
“One of the major elements of what we’re doing is protecting the oysters while they grow. I’d call it ranching, but that sounds even stranger than oyster farming,” Walton says as we walk around the lab. Oyster farming does sound strange, and to some, bad.
“When you say aquaculture, lots of people think of farmed tilapia or shrimp from Thailand,” Walton says. “That’s not what this is.” Walton points out oyster farming’s positives, stressing the industry is sustainable, environmentally friendly, creates jobs, preserves a traditional way of life and provides even more oysters for eaters to enjoy. “We are really just adding a different product to the marketplace. Farmed oysters can promise a certain taste and size, a consistent quality, all in a pretty shell, and that’s important to chefs and oyster connoisseurs. We’re producing world-class oysters here.”
As an ecologist, Walton believes Alabama waters are better off with oyster farms than without. “We’re not fighting Mother Nature; we’re working with her. The farms’ structures are actually creating habitat for other marine creatures like fish and blue crabs. The farmers are growing the same species of oyster that’s native here, and we’re making waters that may not have been productive before produce a sellable product. We aren’t medicating the oysters or using any chemicals. It’s natural,” he says.
It begins in the Shellfish Lab, in small plastic tanks at the open-air hatchery sitting underneath the university’s stilt-raised building. Mature oysters, either from a farm or a wild oyster bed, one in each tank, spawn. “We do feed them at this point, keep the temps just right and pump in saltwater fresh from the Gulf; we make it like Club Med to get them ripe and ready,” Walton says. They don’t usually need much more of a push than that, but if they’re acting shy, hatchery staff provides encouragement. “We’ve put bottles of wine on top of the tanks, played Barry Manilow for them, all in the hopes that oyster porn will happen,” Walton says.
When one male finally does the deed, a dropper full of the now sperm-saturated water is added to the rest of the tanks. It triggers the others to follow suit, and they release their own contribution to the future. Their work over, the adult oysters are returned to a reef or a farm, while their donations are mixed, and reproduction occurs.
“We do single parenting, just one batch of sperm with one batch of eggs; that gives us a healthier strain and preserves genetic diversity,” Walton says. In just 24 hours, you’ve got microscopic baby oysters. Millions go into large blue tanks and are fed a “Thanksgiving dinner” portion of phytoplankton twice a day. They’ll stay here and grow and swim (the only time in their lives that they will) for a week or two before they’re moved to smaller tanks where they attach or “set” on minuscule pieces of ground-up oyster shell. “This is just what they do out in the bays,” Walton says. “The only difference here is we’ve given them each an individual shell fragment to set on; that keeps them from getting all stuck together and makes it easier to get individual juvenile oysters to the farms.”
The industry term for these adolescent oysters is “seed,” and they continue to grow in nursery tanks, where water piped in from the Gulf only a couple hundred yards from the lab is moved over them in a continuous flow, allowing them to filter the water and grab their food themselves. Most of the seed will go to farmers, but some remains at the lab to be used in experiments grad students are conducting.
Before we leave to visit a few farms, Walton stops to check the progress of one of them. A tall slip of a girl with a T-shirt sweat-stuck to her back has her head down and keeps working as Walton peppers her with questions. Her hands dig into a mound of seed oysters and she rolls one and then another between her fingertips, every couple of minutes putting a few to one side. “We’re seeing if we can breed out the ‘back bend’ shape,” she tells me, never looking up. “It makes them harder to shuck,” Walton adds. “We’re trying to see if we can select for other shapes too, like cup depth, and how many generations it would take to get what we want.”
While research like this is ongoing at the Shellfish Lab, the methods used for the nursery and hatchery have been around for decades. It’s how the oysters are treated once they get to the farms that’s making the difference and making the industry viable.
The AU Shellfish Lab is the only area hatchery, but Double D Oyster Co., the area’s only commercial nursery, started tending to baby oysters (supplied by the hatchery) in December 2013 on the pier behind co-owner Doug Ankersen’s house in Belle Fontaine on the banks of Mobile Bay.
The mechanical engineer, who, like almost everyone else in the fledgling industry, has kept his day job, is a bay area native and has long been concerned about its future. “I’ve been a part of environmental projects focused on our water quality for years,” he says. “I took Bill’s class and thought it sounded like something good for the area, good for the bays.”
His engineering background has come in handy. He designed and built the custom pump for the upweller tanks the nursery uses to bathe the babies in a constant stream of circulating bay water, so they’re never without food.
“Doug, you’ve got a lot of water moving through here, much more than we’ve got going in our tanks at the lab,” Walton notes. “Can I look at this pump?”
“You can look, but it’s proprietary,” Ankersen says. He smiles, but adds. “Seriously. No photos.”
“It’s all just so fascinating,” says co-owner Susan Bell as she tucks a section of sandy hair whipping in the breeze back under the band of her visor. Petite and buzzing with energy, she chimes in as Walton keeps peering into the tanks and commenting on the water movement. “I love watching them get bigger. And I get to walk to work.”
Ankersen’s neighbor, Bell got involved when he asked her to check in on the oysters one summer while he was out of town. “His kids normally helped with that, but they were gone too, so I did it.” She was hooked and became Ankersen’s partner in August 2014. The retired residential drafter is now the “oyster mother” at Double D, and it’s a title she takes seriously. “We have to look at them daily and move them around in the tanks. Where they are in there can affect their growth rate, and we want every baby to have a chance to be in good spot.” By the end of 2015, Double D will have grown 4 million oysters to supply farmers.
Double D’s presence is a step in the right direction, but to continue gaining speed, the industry needs more nurseries and one day, a commercial hatchery. In 2014, the Shellfish Lab produced 12 million seed oysters, and Walton and his team are barely keeping up with steadily increasing demand. “We are a research facility; we don’t really want to be a commercial hatchery and nursery; we’re just a stop-gap measure. We want more businesses to come in and do that,” Walton says.
Left alone in the wild, oysters attach to structures on the bay floor and never move again. They grow whichever way they can; they eat whatever happens to be in the water that flows past them; they can become covered in rows of sharp barnacles and are vulnerable to killers like the oyster drill, which burrows through their shells and sucks them dry, as well as the dangers (being buried alive) that come with hurricanes.
At farms like Crockett’s Point aux Pins, because he’s using the off-bottom techniques Walton and his team teach and tout, young oysters enjoy several advantages over their wild cousins, privileges that speed up growth and increase survival rates by providing protection from predators and storms, ensure consistency in taste quality and keep the shells attractive.
Off-bottom farming is exactly what its name says. Baskets or cages full of oysters are suspended in about four to 12 feet of bay water (depending on the system). Each oyster is already “set” on a tiny piece of shell at the hatchery, so they rest in their new home with their siblings, each one free from any attachments. They may be in rectangular cages that float under air-filled, plastic pontoons, attached to a line anchored to the bay floor with a metal stake. Or they might be in oblong baskets, clipped to lines strung between posts driven into the sandy bottom, a system called Australian Long Line, which is what Crockett uses. He’s got about 300 baskets on nine lines.
“We’ve increased our production 33 percent each year since our first, and we will double our production this year and hit about 200,000 oysters for 2015-2016,” Crockett says.
The 60-something stocky bio-statistician who runs clinical trials for drug companies in his “real” job, rattles off the facts and figures of his farm like he’s filling in cells of a spreadsheet. His farmhand Hugh “Hugo” McClure, shows a bit more emotion. “When someone sees a real pretty oyster, I want them to say, ‘Well that must be a Point aux Pin!’ That’s my job. I keep ’em growing good and looking good.”
Hugo McClure and his son Brandon sorting oysters right out of the waters at Point aux Pins.
McClure came to Point aux Pins in 2013, when Crockett’s aging shoulders could no longer handle the hard labor required to work his farm. Crockett cracks a skeptical half-smile under his straw hat as he pokes fun at Hugo. “He talks to them,” he says. “To the oysters.” He throws a hand up; his eyebrows rise simultaneously. “I don’t know if it helps, but it might. He makes my life livable, so he can sure try it.”
“It does! They love it,” McClure insists. The empty arms of the wetsuit he’s pulled down to his waist wave like a car dealer’s inflatable tube man as he gestures, talking with his hands. “I ask, ‘How my babies doing?’ and I tell them how great they’re looking.” The thought of the retired soldier and ex-cop walking between the lines, pulling up baskets and whispering sweet nothings to the oysters inside almost seems too “cute” to be true, but there’s no kidding in his eyes when he talks about the love he puts into each oyster, with his son Brandon’s help.
Each farm has its own routine, and the differences result in different products, but all of them spend time checking their oysters’ growth and dividing them into other baskets or cages as they get bigger, pulling them out of the water for a few hours to air-dry and let the sun burn the biofoul, or accumulated organic material, from their shells. Farms may rest their oysters in different depths of water, which can affect taste thanks to ranges in salinity and food sources. They might take the oysters out of the baskets and run them through a tumbler, a rotating metal drum that rattles and rolls them in a cacophony of clunking, clanking echoes and sheers off new shell growth on the edges to force expansion down instead of out; they may let natural wave action do some or all of the tumbling for them. They pull crabs and other undesirables out of the baskets and toss them back to the bay. From spawn to harvest takes, on average, nine to 12 months (faster than it does in the wild). How and how often they do the above varies widely, but it’s all part of the commitment that any good oyster farmer must show his crop if he wants to stand out.
And that’s the what these farms are doing; they’re branding themselves with clever names, catchy marketing slogans, but most importantly a unique taste and discernable look that consumers will come to know and love — and search for by name on menus. Point aux Pins have earned a reputation for being small and tender with a delicate hint of sweet behind their salt.
While Walton’s air-dry method for biofouling has made it less so, it’s a labor-intensive job, but with the knowledge gained from Shellfish Lab’s research, outcomes are more predictable, and the chances of a hefty haul of oysters making it to harvest are higher now than ever before. Still, oyster farming is not for the faint of heart or the small of bank account or the poor of credit, as Crockett points out. He generously shares details of his business with would-be competition, and Walton has brought several potential new farmers to him to get the lowdown. Ever the realist, he doesn’t sugarcoat a thing.
“There are difficulties in just getting started,” he says. “You have to have the rights to harvest oysters, riparian rights, by owning land on the water or leasing the rights for water off of lands owned by someone else or the state.” Then you have to buy the equipment, the baskets or cages, lines and pilings. “That’s a big investment. Each 300-yard line is $6,500.” You have to buy seed oysters. And then you have to do the actual farming and harvesting, which means dealing with an abundance of regulations and agencies, finding a certified processor and a stable distribution channel. If you want total control of the product, you become a certified processor yourself.
“Bill has made it better. He’s been instrumental in making this work,” Crockett says, “but it’s a lot to contend with.”
He knows better than most. Crockett got involved growing oysters as a volunteer for an oyster reef restoration project in Mobile Bay in 2000. “Oysters were seeded on old oyster shells and then given to volunteers like me; we were called oyster gardeners.” The gardeners put the oysters in baskets that they hung off their piers and boat docks. The program then took the mature oysters and added them to already established reefs. Crockett’s stellar growth rates suggested the waters off his pier were full of what oysters like to eat, so he decided to try it as a business. Not long after he got started, Katrina came. “It took our house and 50,000 still-growing oysters,” he says. Pushed down to the bay floor, they were covered with feet of muck and sandy mud. “They suffocated,” he says.
While the off-bottom technique lets farmers minimize losses by moving their oysters low in the water column to avoid storm surge while staying above the bay floor, a hurricane the size of Katrina will always be a threat to anything in its path. It’s just one more risk factor.
Yet, new farmers keep on coming, guys like Tyler Myers, who at 27 is one of the youngest (if not the youngest) oyster farmer in Alabama. His Massacre Island farm is the newest, just getting fully permitted last May. Originally from Mobile, he now lives in what was once his family’s weekend house on the bay side of Dauphin Island, and his farm is right off the beach out back. Unlike many other oyster farmers, Myers is all in; oyster farming is his full-time gig. Late next summer, he hopes to harvest close to 200,000 oysters.
Brent Zirlott’s son, Lane, all sunburned muscle and smile, wades through the water toward me and squints into the harsh glare as he roughly quotes Psalms to explain his connection to his work.
“The deep calls the deep, right?” he says. “You got to be a bit wild yourself to work with something wild, and that’s what I love, taking something wild like these oysters and influencing them, but they’re still wild, and where we are, where they grow, that’s still wild. I’ll tend these oysters from daylight to dark.”
Bo is resting on the bow of the skiff but hops up, ears erect, every time Lane says “oyster.”
“You’ve had enough, Bo,” Brent says.
New lines are going in at a second Murder Point farm plot. Lane swings a mallet and lands it on top of an upright PVC pipe, pounding it into the sandy bottom of Grand Bay, checking it with a level and then giving it another light tap to get it just right. He keeps talking, and I strain to hear his voice cutting through a swift wind as Brent half-whispers toward his shoes, “Nobody works harder than my son.”
Lane no doubt gets it from his dad. Brent is a fourth-generation fisherman, chasing and netting shrimp like his father and grandfather did. He and Lane captained the family’s two 97-foot shrimp trollers until a few years ago.
“I put 35 years into shrimping, and I liked it, but I missed a lot, the kids’ sports and stuff like that. We’d go out 30 days at a time,” he says. “Lane didn’t like that; not when he had his kids.”
Brent was considering the family’s future in shrimping when his wife Rosa talked him into taking the Shellfish Lab’s OFF class. “Water work is all we know, all I know,” Brent says, “and here was this guy, so excited about this oyster farming. I was hooked.” That was 2013.
Murder Point is now one of the biggest farms in Alabama in terms of production. Its original farm in Porterville Bay has 5,200 baskets, and the second farm in Grand Bay that Lane was finishing when I visited, is 30 percent bigger and should produce 1 million oysters for harvest in fall 2017.
Murder Points have gotten a lot of attention from “foodies” and chefs (and deservedly so), but as each farmed oyster develops a taste and look specific to where and how it was grown, people are developing preferences. Cullan Duke’s Mobile Oyster Company and its Isle of Dauphine oysters are topping a lot of favorite lists, too.
“Welcome to the farm,” Duke says. The 34-year-old pushes his gold-rimmed aviators atop his head and thrusts out his hand for a shake before leading Walton and me to a small party already in progress on one end of Dauphin Island. Duke’s wife, Nicollete, and another young couple finish smearing thick coats of sunscreen on their kids before we all gather around a folding table adorned with two clear plastic cups holding simple arrangements of ruddy-colored sea grasses and soft-green succulents plucked from nearby sand. The centerpiece is an ice-lined platter holding a dozen of Duke’s Isle of Dauphine oysters. As he plunks three on my plate, I notice an oddity. We’re on the deck of a boathouse that’s on land. “Katrina moved 18 feet of shore from the Gulf side of the island over here,” he explains. “The boathouse stayed.” And the farm does have a slightly beat-up johnboat, with “Miss Cate” printed on its bright teal hull. It rests on the beach. Duke routinely rows it out to his cages a few hundred yards off shore in Mississippi Sound to check on his crop. Myers, whose farm and home are just down the way, often helps Duke work his farm since he lives on site.
We chat about his company’s history between sipping white wine and throwing back oysters. Duke grew up sailing and fishing in Mobile Bay and around the island, and now he lives and practices law in Mobile while also working the waters that were once a childhood playground. He happened on the idea of oyster farming by accident, when searching for a speaker for a Rotary Club meeting.
“I was desperate, so I called the Auburn University extension office to find someone,” he says. “They recommended a guy who came and talked about the effort to restore wild oyster reefs in Alabama.” That piqued his interest in oysters and soon, he was chatting with Walton about a stretch of water he’d discovered off the island in the course of his law work. “I felt like I’d found a good spot to try farming, so I went for it,” he says.
That was 2012. Since then, Mobile Oyster Company has doubled its harvests each season, and its oysters end up in highly lauded restaurants from Oxford’s Snackbar to Birmingham’s Hot & Hot Fish Club to Atlanta’s Kimball House and New Orleans’ Peche. He answers my question, “Why do this?” with a laugh and mock surprise.
“Did you taste the oysters?” he asks in return.
I had, but I go ahead and eat another one for good measure.
“They taste like here,” he says, opening his arms wide and motioning to the expanse of pale olive liquid behind us. “That’s one thing I really love. All of these farmed oysters are unique.”
We’re down to one oyster left, which my host graciously lets me have while he reaches in a cooler to grab more. Walton makes himself useful and starts splitting open shells. “How do you shuck, Cullan?”
“It’s the prettiest way to do it, less chance of nicking the belly meat that way,” Walton says, “but side-shucking is fastest.”
“I lip shuck, go in through the front.” Jeff Collier, the mayor of Dauphin Island has joined us. “I just wanted to come say ‘hi,” he says.
“And to eat some oysters,” Duke says.
Collier smirks. “Yeah, so let’s get to it.”
With 12 off-bottom oyster farms up and running in Alabama, and a handful of others in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida (with more coming in the Sunshine State), it looks as if Walton is getting his wish: a thriving oyster farming industry in the Gulf that seems to have most of the earlier kinks worked out. But the main ingredient in the recipe for success is demand. Folks have got to want what the oyster farmers are selling.
Thanks to the support of restaurants and chefs around the Southeast, they do. Many are offering a side of education with every oyster platter, because, as Chef Bill Briand at Fisher’s in Orange Beach, Ala., says, “They’re just really good, and I like telling folks that they came from right here.” Like Walton, Briand is an equal-opportunity oyster lover; he’s never met one he didn’t like. “I don’t understand people who say they don’t like oysters.” He straightens the Fisher’s baseball cap he’s always wearing to tame wisps of longish brown hair. With a dad in the military, his family moved a lot but landed in New Orleans when he was a teen. “When my dad was away, my mom and I would go out to eat oysters together; that became a thing for us. I imagine that’s part of their appeal to me.”
Fisher’s owner, Johnny Fisher, picks up on Briand’s thought. Tall and thin, he’s been quiet so far, but a spark of enthusiasm lights his eyes behind black-frame glasses as he jumps into the conversation. “That is the thing about oysters; they’re social. They taste great, but they’re fun to eat and share, too.” Fisher opened his namesake restaurant in 2013 and has been a vocal proponent of using as many fresh, local ingredients possible. The consistent quality of farmed oysters impressed him, but so did the marketing potential. “They’re a great way to celebrate and highlight our Gulf Coast. We’re always trying to spotlight all the great things coming from down here, so it’s neat to have an Alabama product that is this good and has a good story to go along with it.”
Chef David Bancroft is simpatico with Fisher’s and Briand’s “eat local” philosophy; at his restaurant Acre in Auburn, Ala., swaths of land between parking spaces and small plots surrounding the building are packed with fruit trees, herbs, rows of tomatoes and okra plants and corn stalks. He pulls a late-summer fig off a tiny tree wedged in a corner behind the kitchen door and kicks at the ground with a dusty cowboy boot. “I love working out here, seeing what’s coming up next,” he says, “and I appreciate what these oyster famers are doing, the work they’re putting into creating a sustainable food system.”
And he’s pitching in, hosting an annual Oyster Social. The third is in planning stages now but should take place in January 2016. The event serves dual purposes: to expose chefs from other parts of the South and the country to Alabama farmed oysters and to raise funds for continued research at the Shellfish Lab.
“It’s amazing to see the university and the families all working together,” Bancroft says. “It’s a symbiotic relationship that is affecting the area in such a positive way. Bottom line though, they are creating amazing oysters. I think they’ll soon be the standard for Southern oysters.”
Alabama chefs and restaurateurs could be biased, but they’re not the only ones praising Bama’s farmed bivalves. Bryan Rackley, one of the owners of Kimball House in Atlanta, serves them at his restaurant’s raw bar alongside big name oysters from the East and West Coasts. “They have a really interesting flavor profile. There’s a woody, mossy taste you don’t get from New England oysters, and it’s very nuanced,” he says. “There’s not the big blowout of salinity either, so you can detect the subtleties.”
Bryan Rackley runs the oyster program at Kimball House in Decatur, Ga.
Working closely with Steel City Seafood, a distributor in Birmingham, means Rackley puts oysters only three days old (at most) in front of his customers. And like Fisher and others, Rackley relishes spreading the good news about Alabama and other Southern oysters, which is one reason he helped found Oyster South, an organization devoted to raising awareness of Southern oysters and oyster farming, whose Alabama members include Fisher, Bancroft, the Zirlotts and Crockett among others. “Eating Southern oysters kinda went out of fashion, but it’s coming back, and I want to expose people to the value of Southern oyster farms,” Rackley says.
There’s the economic value. “It’s creating jobs,” he says. The environmental value. “One oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, and they metabolize pretty much anything,” he says. And then there’s the value that’s impossible to quantify, but may be the hallmark of Southern oysters. “There’s a real pride of place associated with this. I think knowing an oyster came from close to home means something to a lot of people. Once you know the farmer and learn their story, you take that in too.”
Rackley admits to sensing a change in his own perspective and objectivity after meeting some of the Alabama farmers. “Lane at Murder Point is bananas, and in a good way. He’s crazy into his product. Same with Hugo at Point aux Pins.” But the oysters hold up on their own. “They belong on our menu not because they’re ‘Southern,’ but because they’re delicious. You can taste the difference when someone cares that much about what they are doing.”
But what, other than TLC, makes them delicious? As “terroir” so heavily influences the taste of wine, so does the mix of salt, phytoplankton and other elements in a certain stretch of water give every farmed oyster a distinct flavor. The oysters take on the essence of the place in which they grew, even when that spot is mere miles from another farm. It’s what Walton calls “meroir,” playing off “mer,” the French word for sea.
The unblemished shells matter, too. “When I got my first box of Point aux Pins, it looked like someone had hand-polished each shell. They were perfect,” Briand says. “When you’re serving them on the half-shell, a beautiful presentation only adds to the experience.”
And the decisions each farmer makes can manipulate the shape and size. Each farmer decides when he’ll harvest his oysters; some pull them in and take them to market when they reach 3 inches. Others let them go until they’re closer to 4. Manual tumbling or putting baskets and cages in a place that gets heavier natural wave action affects shape and texture. Height is prized over length. “You don’t want LSBs, long skinny bastards,” Walton says. An oyster that grows down instead of out gets fat and soft, and once shucked, its deep cup (the bottom shell) retains the liquor, the salty nectar surrounding the meat, allowing more of it to make it into your mouth.
“All of them vary, and that’s what you’d expect from something handcrafted, not mass produced,” Fisher says. “And that’s what we want, to give folks options and let them find their favorite. The key is that the quality is consistent. We always know we’re going to get great oysters from these guys.”
“It was awful.” Briand has stopped smiling. A tropical storm has popped up this morning, and forecasters are predicting a track that would lead it into the Gulf. This news turns the discussion to Hurricane Katrina. Briand was in New Orleans then. “I’ll never underestimate a storm again," he says. "Now I just assume it’s going to hit, and if it doesn't, then great.”
The Crescent City was devastated, but Alabama didn’t escape Katrina’s wrath. And five years later, the Deepwater Horizon exploded, and a new menace ballooned into the waters and slithered toward the shoreline.
“Our communities down here have been through a lot,” Fisher says. “That’s the real exciting thing about oyster farming though. It’s a way to keep families on the water and get new families working it and investing in the health and stewardship of our waters. It’s a positive that gets people into Alabama seafood. That may be what I like about it the most.”
For last few years, the wild oyster harvests in the Gulf have not been what they used to be, and no one can point to clear cause of the decline.
“It’s not over-fishing in Alabama,” Walton says. Katrina and some dry years following it played a role, increasing the water salinity, which brings more predators. “I don’t think it was all the hurricane and we’ve had wet years since to bring that (salinity) down, but things have not bounced back like many expected. We really don’t have all the answers. But it’s not water quality that’s keeping us from coming back. I think something is happening on the bottom.”
This suspicion lends even more credence to off-bottom farming, but Walton is quick to stress that it’s not the end of wild oysters.
“I’ve been really pleased to see that what our Alabama farmers are doing has been approached as something additional here,” he says. “It will add to our harvest and to our ways to make a living, but not it’s not competition or a replacement. Farming can never provide the quantity you get in the wild, even in down years, even with the issues facing the wild harvests. And these farmed oysters are intended for a different market.”
Off-bottom farming could be one part of a solution for the problems decimating other oyster fisheries, like the ones in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay. But only if the people there embrace it.
Tommy Ward answers his cell with a “Yello?” and I explain why I’m calling. I want his take on oysters in Apalachicola, and he’s as good as any to ask. Owner of 13 Mile Seafood, he’s worked the fertile waters of Apalachicola Bay for most of his life. His voice is heavy with frustration-laced sadness as it comes over the line.
“I feel the wild-culled Apalachicola oysters are a thing of the past,” he says.
The water war that’s raged between Alabama and Florida on one side and Georgia on the other for decades has taken a toll on Apalachicola and its oystermen. As an ever-growing Atlanta uses more and more fresh water, less makes it down to Apalachicola Bay, increasing its salinity. More salt means more predators picking off oysters before tongers can get to them, and many oystermen have given up.
“It’s depressing,” Ward says. But he’s still determined, and he’s giving farming a go, currently testing several methods to see which works. “I’m doing floating baskets off-bottom and also putting some on the bottom and looking at mortality rates and growth. I have to know what’s best for here before I make any more investment.”
Where Walton preaches the benefits of oyster aquaculture to anyone who’ll listen (including Ward), Ward has gone about his experiments quietly, knowing that many of the attitudes in his area are not with him.
“A lot of the old-timers here are already done, and most of the younger ones, they don’t want anything to do with oyster farming,” he says. “The county officials are against it too, but I’ve got my leases and my aquaculture license so they can’t stop me from trying.”
“It’s a shame to see the mentality that it has to be one way or the other,” Walton says. “It doesn’t.” I tell him Ward sees farming as Apalachicola’s future. “It could be part of it; biologically it should work, but if it’s not a cultural fit, it won’t,” Walton says.
And that’s true anywhere. “You have to have individuals willing to do it and a community that’s behind them,” Walton says. “I’d love to see all our fishing communities on the Gulf get onboard because it provides another way for young people to make a living off the water.”
In Alabama, you can’t make a living tonging oysters, and it’s becoming near impossible in Apalachicola too. “We’re going to lose the tradition entirely if we don’t provide some options for the next generation,” Walton says. “I want to see boats working our bays, and I’m not too particular about exactly how they are doing it.”
But some tongers don’t want to — or can’t—make the transition into being farmers. It’s a different mindset, a different lifestyle. There could be an answer for them too.
Sitting somewhere in the middle, the “spat on shell” concept combines farming with fishing. Hatchery spawn are set on old oyster shells in the lab (but not individually) and then added back to the bays, where they sink to the bottom and nature takes over. “So people who already have leases to harvest off the bottom have another way to get oysters.” It opens the door to people who don’t want to put out the time and money that off-bottom farming requires. It’s already being used for oyster reef restoration on the Atlantic coast and is being done in the Gulf off Louisiana as well as in Alabama, so the Shellfish Lab is researching ways to improve the process.
Despite a reluctance among certain oystermen, oyster farming has garnered extensive support in Alabama, and so far, no detractors. There are a few roadblocks that could hinder continued growth, though.
“We need affordable insurance options for these guys,” Walton says. They can get policies that protect their crop, but they need their gear protected as well.
Distribution channels and financing could be better, too. “We’ve got three equipment suppliers down here now, so the industry is drawing some of what it needs. And we need more nurseries and a commercial hatchery,” Walton adds.
When you get Walton going, he can talk for hours on the topic. “In five years, I want people to think of Alabama when they think about amazing oysters, but it’s bigger than that when I look at what these oyster farms really mean. We’re building this industry that’s keeping people working these waters and bringing new ones to it. It’s so, so interesting to me the ways these farmers are different and how that shapes their approach.” He says it with excitement but also the weight of a responsibility that ensures he’d probably not head back North even if he and his family weren’t enjoying themselves so much.
“I try not to oversell it. And I get a little freaked out thinking about some of these folks buying more property, really investing a lot in their farms,” he says. “These farmers need me, not specifically me, but somebody with my knowledge base. I’ve started something here, and I’m going to finish it.”
“It’s hard work though,” he continues, a sentiment he’s repeated multiple times. “Can you get rich oyster farming? Probably not.”
He pauses, looking out the car window as I drive down a bumpy red-clay road leading from the edge of Grand Bay back to civilization. “But I guess that depends on what your definition of rich is. Doing something you love, that is yours and you can be proud of and making a good enough living, that's a kind of wealth, I think.”