“I talk to the oysters at day one,” said Lane Zirlott of Murder Point Oyster Co. in Bayou la Batre on Alabama’s coast of the Gulf of Mexico, “If you learn to love the oyster it will love you back.”
Who is this guy talking to oysters and why am I writing about oyster farming? I attended the 2016 World Food Championships Blogger Summit in Orange Beach, Ala., and learned about Alabama seafood and specifically, oyster farming in a world post-BP oil spill world. I also toured a working oyster farm!
Why Oyster Farming?
“It’s aquaculture to keep farmers working,” Dr. Bill Walton, aka Dr. Oyster, of Auburn University Shellfish Lab said when speaking about Alabama’s oyster farming. He was one of many summit speakers and shared the University’s efforts to grow the state’s oyster farming community.
Why is Auburn University and Alabama investing and assisting in oyster farming? Alabama’s natural fisheries are strained and the University is working with farmers to raise, harvest and commercially sell Alabama-raised oysters as another industry.
Benefits of Oyster Farming:
- Harvesting oysters creates an industry resulting in economic benefits.
- Offer shoreline protection.
- Help filter water (Oysters filter about 50 gallons of water a day! And they’re like sheep, they graze on extra green in water.)
- Creates habitat for other species of flora and fauna.
The Value of Alabama Oysters
According to Dr. Walton, Alabama’s Gulf Coast is ideal for raising and harvesting oysters due to water salinity and conditions. Oysters tend to take on the flavor of where they are grown, distinguishing them from other oysters.
“Oysters are like wine, people want to find the next great oyster,” Dr. Walton said and added how the bivalves are seasonal and people will follow them like “fall leaves.”
Oyster farmers are encouraged to focus on selling their harvest to high-end markets in the U.S. such as East Coast and West Coast oyster restaurants. Current wholesale cost ranges between 30 – 70 cents per oyster.
In 2008, there weren’t any oyster farms in Alabama and eight years later, due to Auburn University’s efforts, there are 13 farms in the state raising and harvesting five species. The 2015 harvest yielded approximately 1 million pounds of the bivalves. In the Gulf Coast, Louisiana has 3 and Florida has 6, and surprising, Apalachicola, famous for its world-renowned oysters, currently does not want to participate in oyster farming.
Although there are benefits to oyster farming, there are challenges. Oyster farmers work with nature which could range from dealing with highly saline waters due to drought to rain runoff causing oyster harvesting closures due to high bacteria counts.
Fun Alabama Oyster Farming Factoids
- Oysters are raised in a suspended environment rather than on the sea floor.
- Oyster farming is a new, environmentally-friendly industry.
- It creates jobs.
- Oyster farming yields many oysters at a low cost.
- From spat (oyster egg) to market, suspension oyster raising takes 12 – 14 months while on-the-bottom oysters take about 2 years.
Alabama Seafood: The Business of Oysters Worth Killing For
Back to Lane Zirlott of Murder Point Oyster Co., the guy who speaks to his oysters. Murder Point is one of the farms participating in Auburn University’s program, earned its name years ago when two men got in a spat (no pun intended!) over the property. It resulted in a man’s death and eventually, a memorable marketing tag line.
Murder Point Oyster Co. touts having “oysters worth killing for” and brags about the “butter love” (#ButterLove) each oyster has. After tasting the salty, buttery-sweet, plump oysters while standing on the dock overlooking the oyster growing field, I can understand the butter love. Although mine were almost freshly harvested, according to Mr. Zirlott, Murder Point oysters are at their prime, like “angel meat,” at 14 days due to a controlled rot and enzyme release. Oysters are edible between 14 – 21 days when properly stored in a cooler.
Although oyster farming is relatively new to Murder Point Oyster Co., harvesting from the sea isn’t. Five generations have been involved in the Alabama Gulf seafood industry from shrimping to fishing and now, they turned to Auburn University for assistance in setting up a farm. After research, equipment and oyster farming techniques were adapted from those used in Australia and it seems to be working, including tumbling oysters in what looks like a large, metal cylindrical tube, which Mr. Zirlott says, makes it unique to Murder Point. It helps even out the shells and in turn, impacts the meat inside.
Guess you can say these are world-renowned bivalves because Murder Point Oyster Co. sent about 30,000 oysters to the United Kingdom in a two-month period last year. Currently, 1.8 million are being raised with an aim to raise 2 million. That’s a lot of oysters to be talking to!
When you’re out and about perusing oyster menus and see some hailing from Alabama’s Gulf Coast, go ahead and order some up, especially if they’re from Murder Point Oyster Co. Guard them with your life, though. Remember, they’re oysters worth killing for (although, I am not advocating killing of any kind!).
How do you like your oysters? Raw? Steamed? Fried? Tell me!
Disclosure: I was the guest of the World Food Championships, however, this post has not been reviewed by anyone and opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links to support my traveling habit, my special-needs dog and this blog.
View more photos from my trip to learn about Alabama’s Gulf Seafood on Flickr.