The seafood business has always been a way of life on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, but over the past few years a burgeoning industry has been quietly growing in the waters of Mobile Bay — spawning new markets, new businesses and “one hell of an oyster.”
“When you think of a Southern oyster, you think of bellying up to the bar with a beer and eating as many as you can for 25 cents a piece,” Lane Zirlott said. “But, because of this foodie movement in the South — it’s big in New Orleans, it’s big in Atlanta — people have started to take notice of oysters and realize they can be a gourmet item, too.”
Zirlott and his family own and operate the Murder Point Oyster Company. With 1.8 million oysters in the water, it’s the largest oyster farm operating in Alabama today, though farms like Portersville Bay, Navy Cove, Pointe aux Pins and others are jumping at the same opportunity to cash in on a new breed of oyster.
Though plenty are still harvested from reefs and beds in the wild, an increasing number of Alabama oysters are being farmed from fertilization to maturity. Since 2009, more than 13 oyster farms, two equipment suppliers and an oyster nursery have opened along the Gulf Coast.
When it comes to the “half-shell” market, farm-raised oysters — plump, buttery, briny — seem to have the upper hand on their wild counterparts. But while millions are being produced, the demand for this relatively new product is already outpacing what Alabama’s farmers can supply.
Like any farming operation, growing oysters requires “seed,” which in this case are single, young oysters grown in specialized cages off the bottom of the bay. Currently, though, there doesn’t seem to be enough seed to go around.
Rosa Zirlott, Lane’s mother, said Murder Point has put a lot of effort into marketing its particular brand of Alabama-grown oysters, but the lack of accessible oyster seed has caused the business to turn away many potential customers … at least for the time being.
“We’re kind of in a holding pattern right now,” she said. “People want these oysters, but we’ve got to get to where we have a continuous supply … because they don’t want them one time, they want a consistent product.”
Aquaculture in South Alabama
Chris Blankenship, director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division, said despite the quick growth of this new industry, a couple of factors are still holding people back from jumping into the business.
One of those factors is that, like Murder Point, most of Alabama’s oysters farms can’t find enough seed. That’s primarily because it only comes from one place — the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory on Dauphin Island, though that’s only a portion of the role Auburn has played in developing, promoting and sustaining the local aquaculture industry.
University staff have worked with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium to evaluate oyster-growing techniques that could be effective in local waters. Further, they performed market research on the demand that might exist for farm-raised Alabama oysters.
“We’re blessed with incredible growing waters, in the sense that we can grow great oysters, and grow them pretty quickly,” Bill Walton, an associate professor with Auburn’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, said. “The challenge — and this is one of the steps Auburn helped with — was finding out which aquaculture methods would work here.”
According to Walton, who is also known as “Dr. Oyster,” earlier attempts to bring oyster farming to the South weren’t successful, despite similar methods being common in other parts of the country. He went on to say that while those oysters “grew great” in their cages in the warm waters of the Gulf, so did things like barnacles and seaweed, which can clog up and block out the plankton oysters feed on.
The “trick” for preventing that, according to Walton, is having the right equipment — a combination of techniques and gear used in Canada and Australia — as well as a regular schedule for taking oysters out of the water and rinsing the cages. Still, exactly when and how long oysters are removed from water is left up to each farmer’s discretion, but the ultimate goal for many is finding something that makes “economic sense.”
Walton and the rest of the staff still provide assistance to oyster farmers when issues arise on the water, and provide some space smaller operations can rent. However, he said, one of the lab’s main focuses for the past few years has been producing oyster seed for local farmers — adding additional staff members and equipment to help increase the lab’s capacity.
“We have encouraged the private sector to think about starting a hatchery, but so far no business has wanted to step in and start one,” Walton said. “If you can’t get oyster seed, you don’t have much of a farm, so the university has been doing that as sort of a stopgap.”
However, the closest thing to a stand-alone private hatchery in Alabama right now is the Double D Oyster Nursery, which only nurses young oysters that have already gone through the fertilization and seeding process at the shellfish lab.
While Double D and other private nurseries on individual farms may have taken some of the burden off of the shellfish lab, they haven’t done much for getting Auburn out of the oyster seed business. Last year the lab produced 12 million seeds, which was a drop from 2015.
While Blankenship said the state is exploring the idea of expanding its own oyster-hatching capabilities for both aquaculture and for oysters used to filter water in restoration projects, it would likely lead to some of the same public/private issues Auburn has faced.
“It’s a delicate thing for us to do as a state agency,” Blankenship said. “We want to see it grow, but we also don’t want to build a hatchery or do something that would take away an opportunity for a private business.”
Warm water, stormwater
In the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico, farm-raised oysters grow faster than almost anywhere else. On average, it can take 18 months to two years for an oyster to mature, but Walton said Auburn has raised oysters to their standard market size in half that time.
However, those warm, nutrient-rich waters come with a trade-off, and that’s tighter regulations for oysters grown for raw human consumption. For farmers and harvesters alike, one impediment over the past few years has been the the fairly routine closures of shellfish growing waters, which the Alabama Department of Public Health can order for a number of reasons.
The department divides Mobile Bay into seven growing areas, most of which are “conditionally approved” for harvesting. In 2016, ADPH closed harvesting waters in various locations seven times, the most recent of which was only lifted last week. The year before, red tide caused all active areas to shut down harvesting operations for more than seven months straight.
Because rainfall causes stormwater runoff into the bay, more than five inches of rainfall in any 24-hour period automatically causes affected growing areas to be closed until the state can properly test those areas for potentially dangerous bacteria.
According to Byron Webb, who works in the ADPH shellfish office, the flow of Alabama’s river system doesn’t do local oyster farmers many favors either and can often create conditions that distant farms — even those in other warm-water states — don’t have to work around.
“If the [Tombigbee] river gets up around eight feet near Barry Steam Plant, you’ve got mud, dirt and runoff from every city in Alabama just about coming right down the middle of the bay,” Webb said. “Mostly your growing areas in other states are in marshes that are pretty remote, whereas ours are right along these population centers of Mobile and the Eastern Shore.”
Though prolonged shutdowns can be disastrous for farmers and can have negative effects on the industry, Walton said the state takes those proactive measures “before there’s a problem” to avoid contaminations that could potentially be worse for the industry in the long run.
Back over at Murder Point, Lane Zirlott has a similar mindset about the reputation he’s worked to build for his oysters over the past four years.
“In the heat of the summer, we’ve got one hour from the time the oysters come out of the water until it has to get to some kind of mechanical refrigeration,” he said. “So yes, we’re under some pretty strict regulations, and that’s fine. We’re building a brand, and you don’t want anybody to get sick from your brand, because that can ruin you.”
However, local and state officials are looking for possible ways to address some of the water quality issues that impact local oyster operations.
One area that’s been particularly plagued with shutdowns are the shellfish growing waters in Grand Bay, Portersville Bay and the mouth of Fowl River. Repeated shutdowns in that area have drawn attention to an outfall line that pumps treated water from the Bayou la Batre sewage treatment plant into Portersville Bay.
Earlier this month, Blankenship called the outfall line “the single biggest impediment to growing that industry,” which is part of the reason a proposed RESTORE Act project extending the line into the deeper offshore water has seen broad local support, despite a $12 million price tag.
The issue has already been addressed once, when the outfall line was extended from 500 feet to 5,000 feet offshore in 2012. Yet some of the problems for nearby oystermen have persisted because the water at the outfall’s current location is still very shallow.
To work around some of the water quality issues, some of the larger farms, like Murder Point, will actually let competitors from non-permitted areas move oysters onto their farms to filter them because ADPH allows oysters from closed waters to be sold if they’ve been kept in a permitted area for at least 21 days.
Asked why he’d help a competitor, Zirlott said he doesn’t think about that way.
“Rising tide floats all boats, you know? It’s my interest that everybody has good oysters and it’s in my interest that everybody has oysters to go to market,” Zirlott said. “Do I want to have the best? Yes, absolutely, but you got to look at this as something we’re kind of all in together on.”
Building a brand
When it comes to the oysters produced locally, Zirlott seemed to keep that attitude, adding he isn’t afraid to talk about his business with other farmers. He’s also not secretive about the processes he uses on the farm, which would be tough to do anyway considering the dock at the Point aux Pins farm is only about 200 yards away.
“If I told you everything about how I raise these oysters and you did it exactly the same, you still wouldn’t end with the same oyster because they’re so site specific,” he said. “A lot of times I describe it like grapes with wine. You go to Napa Valley, you expect to get a certain wine that tastes a certain way because of that grape that’s grown in that environment, and oysters are the same way.”
Though Zirlott is deliberate about the farming processes he uses, the company was also deliberate about its branding — focusing on social media and connecting with customers near and far that want to know where their food comes from.
Building that brand has meant overcoming misconceptions about the oysters produced in the Gulf of Mexico, which have traditionally been sold in larger quantities and at lower low prices than oysters harvested in other coastal waters. In 2013, despite making up more than 75 percent of all oysters produced in the United States, Gulf states represented half of the total market value.
However, Zirlott said Murder Point is taking the expectations for Gulf Coast oysters as “4- or 5-inch steak oysters” and replacing them with smaller, more flavorful oysters that are more likely to make an appearance at a high-end raw bar than in an all-you-can-shuck special.
“This is really a new thing, especially to people on the East Coast and the West Coast because they didn’t think this was possible. People tell me all the time they can’t believe that this is a Gulf oyster,” he said. “That’s going to benefit us all because if we can get four or five premium oysters coming out of Alabama, it’s going to speak to Alabama as a whole.”