Update: Since this story was published, the impacts on oyster harvests from the increased fresh water that Mid-West floods pushed into the Gulf of Mexico affected supply across the region. Many oyster reefs and some oyster farms were devastated, and for a time restaurants in the area had few Gulf oysters to sell.
Terry Shelley’s world has changed. Over his five decades in the Louisiana seafood business, he has too. He used to shrimp and crab, spending weeks on the water in a 72-foot double-rigger named The Second Chance.
Then another boat hit its bow, and he moved into the oyster business. Near the state’s far northern edge, Shelley first pulled oysters from the shores that on a map dissolve like lace into the Gulf of Mexico’s waters.
Eventually he secured nearly 70,000 acres of oyster leases, and he realized it was better business to send other people out in a half dozen boats to work his reefs. In recent years, however, those leases have produced fewer oysters.
"I see everything decreasing, and I'm watching what's taking place," Shelley said.
So three years ago, Shelley got into a new business: growing oysters in cages.
Trailed by his three German shepherds, Shelley, his face weathered by years on the water and prone to mutter obscenities when government regulations are raised, explained how he takes oyster spat, baby oysters each smaller than a thumbnail, and raises them in 500 floating plastic cages lined up in neat rows. To Shelley, they look like a "military cemetery." Eight months later, the oysters are three inches long, ready to be shucked and slurped. He calls them Delta Pearl oysters.
This new business for Shelley has become a rapidly growing business in the South. Although farming oysters in suspended cages has long been how things are done on the east and west coasts, the first Gulf farms started deep in the South, in Alabama, six years ago.
This May, Texas approved the approach, and now oyster farming is legal in every state along the Gulf of Mexico. Bill Walton of Auburn University in Alabama conservatively estimates that in 2019 oyster farmers across the Gulf generated $5 million in revenue.
The oysters pulled from those cages have deep cups and shiny shells free of the encrustation that cling to wild Gulf oysters scraped from reefs. The meat inside is often firmer and full of complex flavors. Most are triploid, bred not to reproduce so they don’t get watery in the warmest months.
Each oyster has a name, like Pont aux Pins, Caminada Bay and Murder Point, and even more important to oyster lovers, tastes the same every time you order one, because the growers can pick the spot with the tastiest water for their cages.
"A well-farmed Gulf oyster coming from a briny area can compete with any in the world," said Rowan Jacobsen, author of "The Essential Oyster."
Quality costs. A single, farmed Gulf oyster could be up to $3 each, while a wild Gulf oyster can still be had for less than a dollar at a happy-hour deal. No one is making po-boys with high-dollar, farmed Gulf oysters. The people who farm the oysters, however, also earn more. With a five-acre oyster farm, they could support a family.
Walton of Auburn University is the Johnny Appleseed of farmed Gulf Coast oysters. He came to Auburn in 2009 from New England. He knew all about how they farmed oysters on the East Coast.
At Auburn, he was charged with finding out if growing caged oysters in the nutrient-rich waters of the Gulf Coast would work. Walton, who teamed up with John Supan at Louisiana State University, was concerned about biology. But he also investigated oyster economics.
"We had a very specific eye on how would you do this if you were trying to make money," Walton said, "trying to go beyond the typical university question and go into that."
Murder Point Oysters
Mickey Welsh, Montgomery Advertiser
Once they decided caged oysters could be profitable, Walton and Supan started training future oyster farmers.
"It was sort of this very slow start because you had people very skeptical," Walton said.
Lane Zirlott and his parents immediately saw the possibilities in Walton's pitch. The family owned oyster leases but, like most Alabamans, they left the business years prior to that. They ran shrimp boats out of Bayou La Batre in Alabama, but Zirlott was ready to spend more time on shore with his young family.
So six years ago, Zirlott started farming just 25,000 oysters in a place called Murder Point, named for a deadly 1927 dispute over an oyster lease. The next year, they moved to Sandy Bay, but still call their oysters “Murder Points.” Zirlott knew which name was more memorable.
That second year, Zirlott and his parents raised 200,000 oysters. Today, they have 3 million oysters in five acres of water. Murder Point uses a "long-line" method, suspending their plastic cages at just the right height so during low tide the oysters dangle in the air. The bivalves clamp shut when they leave the water, exercising their muscles and ensuring the meat in a Murder Point oyster will be firm.
Farming oysters, the way Zirlott does it, takes constant work. He tumbles and sorts Murder Points so the shells are pretty and the size consistent.
"We could do it another way, but that's not who we want to be. We want to stand out," he said.
Murder Point’s method also requires labor. At first, Zirlott could handle the farm with his dad and another man. Then, around the time the farm grew to 500,000 oysters, he needed a crew of four to wade into the water and hoist the cages of oysters. This year, he added seven workers from Mexico, who came in on temporary farm visas. With that many employees, he now needs a manager.
Murder Point oysters aren't a commodity, like wild Gulf oysters. They're a brand. So Zirlott needs customers to ask for Murder Points, so that restaurant owners will then demand them from their seafood distributors. To cultivate both his oysters and their name, Zirlott is also trying to hire a salesman.
Off-bottom oyster farming, like what Zirlott does at Murder Point and Shelley practices in Louisiana, started along the Gulf Coast in Alabama, which now has 22 farms according to the Auburn University Shellfish Lab. In Louisiana, about six farms are producing oysters with six more in the works, said Brian R. Callam of the Louisiana Sea Grant Oyster Research Laboratory.
Mississippi trained its first class of oyster farmers this year. On a test farm 750 yards offshore from Deer Island, 13 potential farmers were given equipment and 10,000 oysters each to grow.
"It's basically a test trial to see if it's feasible for them,” said Jason Rider, oyster extension agent for Mississippi’s Department of Marine Resources.
Deer Island is in the middle of the state’s coast. Despite that, when Louisiana's Bonnet Carre Spillway was opened this summer to lower the Mississippi River swollen from Midwest rains, that fresh water reached the island and decimated the oysters. Most farmers lost 90% of their crop. Regardless, they all plan to get into the business, and a second class of 21 potential Mississippi oyster farmers have already begun learning how it's done.
"I hate that it happened, but it was a good learning experience,” Rider said. "People are more cautious, and that's not a bad thing. Now they understand that stuff can happen, and there are environmental factors that are outside of everyone's control.”
Off-bottom oyster farming: Step by step
Step 1: Spat, or baby oysters, come to the farm from nurseries. At this stage, the oysters are the size of a fingernail or smaller.
Step 2: The spat is loaded into plastic bags with small openings to allow nutrients from the water to enter. The bags are either suspended from lines, as at Murder Point (pictured), or loaded into metal cages attached to floats. The farmer can choose the ideal spot in the water for growing oysters.
Step 3: As the oysters grow, they are transferred to bags or cages with wider openings to allow more nutrients to enter. Since the oysters are larger, they are also spread out among more bags or cages.
Step 4: As the oysters grow, they are removed from the water several times. Oysters are taken ashore to be tumbled in a rotating metal bin. The tumbling cleans the oysters and chips off the thin edges of their shells, creating a more compact oyster with a deeper cup.
Step 5: After about eight months in the water, the oysters grow to be three inches long and are ready to be sold. They are tumbled and washed one last time.
The quest to legalize off-bottom oyster farming in Texas
Florida had an established clam farming industry. The state legalized oyster farming in 2014, and it is estimated that up to 100 of those farmers have invested in oyster farming. The exact number of state's 318 shellfish farms devoted to oysters instead of clams, however, is not available, according to the Auburn Shellfish Lab. The growth of oyster farming comes as Florida’s oyster reefs in Apalachicola Bay have suffered a historic collapse since 2012.
Loss after a hurricane: A Florida fishing town's struggling oyster industry
Texas, unsurprisingly, has big ambitions for its oyster farms. The state's long coastline, much of it sparsely populated, offers plenty of sites to drop cages of oysters in the water.
"It would take roughly 2,000 acres of oyster farming at some kind of reasonable level to double the current production of oysters that we have here in the state," said Joe Fox of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
Nearly 80% of Texas oysters, Fox said, come from Galveston Bay. Those beds have been hit hard by overfishing, hurricanes and fresh water from heavy rains.
Brad Lomax, who started Corpus Christi's Water Street Oyster Bar in 1983, was part of the coalition that pushed to legalize off-bottom oyster farming in Texas. At the Oyster Bar alone, only one of the restaurants his family now runs, Lomax, sells 600,000 raw bivalves a year. Sometimes he struggles to find them.
"I hate to run out of oysters. It's in our name, you know," he said. “One of the benefits I see from a farming industry in Texas is stability in price and stability in supply.”
Shelley Farms in Louisiana
Todd A. Price, Southern correspondent
Right now, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is developing regulations and picking locations where oyster farms will be allowed. The hope is that farms, spread out across Texas’ long coast, will make sure that a single catastrophe, like a hurricane, won’t affect the bulk of the state’s oysters.
Texas, if everything goes right, won’t pull its first full-grown farmed oysters out of the water until 2021. When they do, Lomax won’t need to buy any, because he plans to farm oysters himself.
“Our restaurant could support a two- or three-acre farm, best I can figure,” he said. “I love the idea of vertical integration. I love that idea of bay-to-table and our own product. It makes a lot of sense.”
Back in Louisiana, Shelley navigated the puddles near his dock that linger longer after the tide goes out than they did last year. He pointed to a floating rig that he designed to lift the cages out of the water.
“I taught myself everything by just doing it,” he said. “I made a lot of mistakes, but I just do it.”
Shelley still sends out boats to scrape oysters off the reefs on his leases. But farming oysters is his future. It’s what drew his daughter, who officially runs Shelley Farms, into the seafood business. In a landscape that changes faster than cartographers can redraw maps, farming oysters gives Shelley some control.
The next piece of equipment coming to Shelley Farms is a depuration tank, built by a French company. The oysters will finish in the tank of cool water, soaking up salt until they taste just right. It won’t matter how much salt is in the bays, the Delta Pearl oysters from Shelley Farms will always have the same salinity.
“I mean, it's just a matter of time before somebody does it on land,” Shelley said. “If they could do it on land, they're going to crack it.”