Battled Gulf Blooms Again

Forty years ago, I took my future wife on our first date: a college party with a bonfire, a keg and a bushel of wild Gulf Coast oysters. Little did I know that, instead of our simply slurping them, those mollusks would consume our lives. After winterizing our boat this January, for a full circle, we would again head down to the Gulf Coast to see how the oyster industry had itself changed.
We visited two romantically named towns along the “Redneck Riviera”: Panacea, Florida, and Bayou La Batre, Alabama. Oyster farmers at both have recently implemented an Australian method of PVC “oyster baskets” rigged on lines set just above the low-tide point. Thus when the water recedes, the baskets of oysters are able to self-clean in the UV light for an hour a day. They remain just at the surface the rest of the time, where an abundance of light and algae provide the best growing conditions.

The era of wild harvests of fish and shellfish may be behind us, but farming the sea will feed mankind in the coming centuries.

Rigged broadside to the waves, the oysters rumble in the baskets, hardening the shells and forcing the oysters to grow shorter and fatter, a size and shape favored by the market. Currently, oysters are a mainstay of the appetizer section of many a menu. Simply by opening a bottle of wine, a restaurant makes anywhere from $100 to $1,000 or more; any salty appetizer that facilitates cork popping is a moneymaker. A small, seductively deep-cupped oyster begs for another bottle of white. In many larger restaurants, the receptionist keeps an eye out for wine whales: When one arrives, she messages the chef, and presto, a dozen briny, thirst-inducing oysters appear free of charge.

Panacea, true to its name, is a welcome relief from the condo/strip-mall/fast-food infested shoreline of Florida. The state owns vast stretches of the coast, so the oyster leases are surrounded by savannas of grass and tracts of pines. Sea birds and dolphins graze the bay. Former bayman Matt Hodges joined forces with tomato farmer Tim Jordon and other investors to start farmed oysters they branded Saucey Lady. As a young man, Hodges and his wife harvested wild oysters, the ones my wife and I ate 40 years ago, until they were all played out. (The state of Florida is suing Alabama and Georgia for diverting too much fresh water from the Apalachicola River and ruining that bay’s once enormous wild harvest.) Now with four kids to raise, Hodges diligently tends his lines of Australian baskets. The warm water yields a crop every 15 months; he hopes to go to market later this spring with the first crop.

Heading west on two-lane Highway 20, through the old Florida of my childhood, we avoided the overbuilt shoreline as we drove to Mobile Bay. There again, the vista of baymen tonging the bottom for wild oysters has disappeared. Fortunately the Zirlott family, owners of a shrimping fleet, have invested time and money to farm millions of oysters, naming them Murder Point oysters after a long-ago dispute over oyster boundaries gone sour. They also use the lines and baskets made by SEAPA, a manufacturer in Australia. I, too, will install that gear to replace triangular purses that did not stand up to our rough environment in Greenport Harbor. Bayou La Batre dubs itself the seafood capital of America for its huge fleet of shrimp boats, but oyster farmers like the Zirlotts are reviving a bay battered by Katrina then the BP oil spill to return the Alabama oyster to the American table.

After seeing the oysters thriving in once-dead waters due to the Australian oyster baskets from SEAPA, I inked an order. I asked the salesman how the firm got in the business. A couch potato moment of the founding partner who owned injection molding plastic equipment was the inspiration. After seeing a TV interview with an Australian oyster farmer, he realized he could team up and devise a better system, which they now export all over the world.

“You are getting old,” my wife informed me midway up the Appalachians. My car’s trunk was full of Gulf shrimp, Alabama pecans and Tennessee sipping whiskey.

“Why do you say that?”

“When we started farming oysters 16 years ago, the old-timers from Greenport used to come over and tell you that they were glad to see you growing oysters.” The new car’s navigation system directed us to the Jefferson Hot Springs in the Virginia mountains, an 1836 spa that looks as if it had not been repainted in 200 years. I have found that final stop a must after any cross-country drive. “When you were on the gulf you told both the growers you were glad to see them harvesting oysters there again. Now you’re the old-timer.”

Although the hand of man is destructive, it can be a nurturing instrument. When a farmer sees an opportunity to grow a profitable crop using modern technology and the sweat of his or her brow, the earth can yield a sustainable abundance that feeds us while enriching the environment. The era of wild harvests of fish and shellfish may be behind us, but farming the sea will feed mankind in the coming centuries.