Cultivating a demand for raw Gulf oysters five years after BP spill

Story highlights

  • Five years after oil spill, restaurateurs, scientists and farmers are vouching for the quality of Gulf oysters
  • Oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico haven't been as in demand as other varieties
  • Farmers and ecologists hope improved methods of farming oysters will lead to a high-end demand

Coden, Alabama (CNN)Mike and Ardis Knoflicek acquired a taste for raw oysters late in life.

Growing up in rural Nebraska, "Rocky Mountain oysters were as close as we got" to seafood, Mike jokes.
Now, after trying the slimy mollusks for the first time in 2014, the pair of recent retirees partakes in oyster happy hour nearly every two weeks at Kimball House in Decatur, Georgia.
    It's the kind of oyster loyalty Kimball House co-owner Bryan Rackley tries to foster by serving new varieties whenever possible. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the Knofliceks had the opportunity to try some new, rare additions to Kimball House's oyster menu from Alabama's Gulf Coast.
    Little did they know of the work that went into bringing those oysters to the bar. They were pulled out of Alabama's Portersville Bay two days earlier as part of an oyster farming system so new to the region that distribution channels outside Alabama barely exist. To bring them to the restaurant, Rackley drove 150 miles each way to Birmingham and back that day.
    Why? "Because they're good," he says, and he thinks they deserve a place on the menu just as much as their East and West Coast counterparts.
    He's not the only one. Five years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Rackley is part of a group of restaurateurs, scientists and oyster farmers who believe the Gulf of Mexico's warm, brackish waters can nourish an oyster worthy of being served on the half-shell in the country's finest raw bars.
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    No doubt they're swimming against the tide, given negative perceptions following the spill as images from the region showed oil washing up on the Gulf's shores, covering animals and marshes. Even before the spill, the Gulf coast had a history of environmental damage, making the thought of seafood that takes on the flavor of its environment less than palatable.
    Rackley and other oyster evangelists with advocacy group Oyster South see potential in this region, and they want to help it thrive again.
    "We want people to know that Gulf seafood is safe and that oyster farmers there are turning out product just as good, if not better, than the East and West Coasts," he said. "It's about variety, about putting a Gulf oyster next to others and experiencing a different flavor profile that rounds out your oyster service."
    Gulf seafood that has been inspected by the Food and Drug Administration before it goes to the marketplace is safe to eat, said Ben Sherman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Enhanced inspection measures of seafood from the Gulf took effect in the immediate wake of the spill.
    Otherwise, it's too early to fully comprehend the scope of the oil spill on habitats and individual species. Researchers are still learning about the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and it could take decades to understand the full impact of the BP oil spill on habitats and species in the Gulf of Mexico, Sherman said.
    Some indicators are starting to emerge. A recent study of the oil's impact on young bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna and amberjack showed dramatic effects, including severely malformed and malfunctioning hearts. Another study published in February indicates that the 2010 oil spill may be among the factors contributing to the ongoing deaths of bottlenose dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
    A report issued in March by BP said the Gulf of Mexico and coastal shoreline habitats have rebounded from the effects of the oil spill, concluding that it had found no data to suggest a "significant long-term population-level impact to any species."
    When it comes to wild oysters, separate groups of scientists (funded in part by BP's post-spill community outreach grants) have found no evidence of oil-related contamination at levels above pre-spill conditions in areas tested. Researchers caution that such findings should not be considered representative of the entire region.
    That could be a good thing, or it could raise the question why aren't we finding more contaminants, said Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries and a member of the Gulf Oyster Industry Council.
    Oyster reproduction on wild reefs was declining before the spill because of a series of environmental and human factors, Nelson said. But oyster landings on the Pontchartrain Basin, one of the most abundant regions, dipped dramatically after 2009, from 8.2 million to 1.9 million in 2012. Yield went up in 2013 to 2.6 million, the latest year for which data are available from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
    "There's no question the spill had tremendous effect on oyster production in Louisiana and Mississippi, but it's hard to say what exactly was caused by the oil and what wasn't," Nelson said. "There's no smoking gun."

    Private leases, premium oysters

    That's where premium oysters cultivated on private leases and sold by the unit for the raw bar market can come into play. Broadly referred to as off-bottom oyster farming, the various techniques involve spawning oysters in a nursery or hatchery and growing them in cages or bags near the top of the water column instead of on wild reefs. It's how most oysters destined for the half-shell market have been raised for decades in the Pacific Northwest and northeastern United States, and it's considered an ecologically sustainable method (PDF) of raising oysters when done to scale.
    It's one way -- albeit for a small, premium market -- in which the Gulf oyster industry is attempting to rebound through techniques that leave less to chance.
    "Historically, Gulf oysters have been a commodity product, harvested from massive reefs and sold cheaply by the truckload. They didn't receive much special handling, and everyone always assumed that Gulf oysters had to be low quality," said oyster expert Rowan Jacobsen, author of "A Geography of Oysters." "Now a handful of pioneers are farming oysters in the Gulf in very hands-on ways, and they are turning out to be some of the finest oysters in the world."
    But is the rest of the world ready for Gulf oysters on the half-shell? Even oyster evangelists such as Jacobsen acknowledge that "old attitudes die hard."

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    The Knofliceks are fans, at least. The Gulf oysters were creamier and less salty than the briny East Coast oysters, which suited the couple just fine. They prefer West Coast oysters for their mild, vegetal flavor, and the plump, meaty Alabama oysters held their own on the ice-filled tray. Another patron a few chairs down agreed that the Gulf oysters had a "nice, clean" taste compared with the high salinity of the others.
    "I like the fact they're not covered in cheese, but they still have a unique flavor," diner Anthony Parish said. "They're not better or worse than the others, just different."

    Hold the crackers

    Still, why would Rackley take six hours out of his day to procure a product that has not been tried and tested in the market? Most of the farm-raised oysters served at Kimball House are shipped by air to the Atlanta airport, a much shorter trip that Rackley makes once or twice a week.
    To find out, I joined him on the ride to Birmingham.
    We met in a coffee shop in Atlanta's Grant Park neighborhood, hours before the Knofliceks would belly up to the bar, and left with three large coolers in the back of his pickup.
    Dressed in jeans and a plaid button-down over a T-shirt, Rackley could be mistaken for a bartender, a role he held for years throughout Atlanta before partnering with three friends from the restaurant industry to open Kimball House in 2014.
    Born and raised in Valdosta, Georgia, he has fond memories of slurping large oysters -- probably Apalachicolas -- out of barnacled shells on family trips to the Florida Panhandle, as many Southerners do. One experience stands out in his mind of a visit to Shuckums Oyster Bar in Panama City Beach, Florida, during an especially rainy vacation. He vividly recalls "hoisting" an oyster onto a cracker and shoving it into in his mouth in solidarity with his father.
    After college, as Atlanta's dining scene evolved in the aughts to include more raw bars and oyster service, Rackley and his friends found themselves "geeking out" over oysters, ordering bags to their home on weekends so they could sit around, shucking oysters and drinking beer.
    It was the perfect segue for a question many urged me to ask about oyster service at Kimball House: Must they be so "precious" about it, by holding back crackers and cocktail sauce, and charging $2 apiece for a warm bun dusted with salted butter?
    It's clearly a question Rackley is used to, and he readily answers. Crackers and cocktail sauce are "superfluous," masking the oysters' natural flavor, he said.
    "Education is our game," he said. "If we're just throwing them out with crackers and hot sauce, we're not giving people the chance to appreciate the oyster to the level we're enjoying them."
    Two hours later, we arrive at Evans Meats in Birmingham and meet Johnny Carradine, who handles the company's seafood accounts. He leads us to a large storage container behind the main facility where seafood is held.
    Inside the cooler, three nondescript boxes await Rackley labeled "Turtlebacks," "Mons Louis" and "Bonus Points."

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    Unsurprisingly, Carradine loves these Gulf oysters, too. The farmers work hard to ensure a polished presentation that shows in the shape and depth of the cup, he said.
    And they just taste good.
    "I think they're some of the best," he said. "They're clean, they're salty, and the size of them is perfect."
    After two decades working in food distribution, Carradine has taken a special interest in Gulf seafood. With fisherman and farmers out in the Gulf each day working to bring food ashore, he wants to make sure as much of it as possible gets to seafood lovers.
    He also sees parallels between the organic and farm to table food movements and his efforts to promote Gulf Coast seafood. As we walk through the cooler, he picks up a hog snapper tagged with a tracking code that tells you the fish's origin story, from vessel to distributor.
    Carradine says it provides assurance for him as a purveyor and for his customers. "People want to know where their fish comes from."
    But Carradine is the last link in the supply chain. As they load the bags into the coolers, Rackley stops to admire the dates written on the tag of one of the bags: a harvesting date of 3/30 and a shipping date of 3/31.
    "This is what I'm looking for," he said: oysters that he can offer to customers two days after they were pulled from the water.

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    'The best oyster possible'

    The oysters came from farms operated by growers in Portersville Bay, Alabama, between the shores of Mon Louis Island and Coden, as part of an education and training program run by Auburn University's Shellfish Laboratory on its Dauphin Island Sea Lab campus.
    Prospective oyster farmers learn how to manage and cultivate their plots under professor Bill Walton, known as "Dr. Oyster," using oyster seed spawned in a hatchery in the Sea Lab campus.
    Walton joined Auburn on the Dauphin Island campus in 2009 when wild oyster reefs were on the decline and the shrimping industry was starting to take a hit because of global competition.
    After decades focusing on fisheries management and restoration in the East Coast, he saw an opportunity to use off-bottom oyster farming to not only create economic opportunities but to contribute to restoration efforts in the Gulf.
    "People in fishing communities were looking around to see what they could do differently for their families," he said. "We know that we won't do the quantity shucking houses need, but we figured it's one way people in coastal communities can keep working with oysters and make money."
    On their two acres, the Zirlott family strives to create the "best oyster possible" for the restaurant market. A fifth-generation family of commercial fishers, Brent and Rosa Zirlott come from shrimping families, and they bought their first boat together in 1987.
    They joined the sea lab program in 2013 out of a desire to try something new amid rising fuel prices and increasing costs of shrimping, Rosa Zirlott said.
    "When you get an item like a small oyster shell that's about size of your thumbnail and you watch it develop and grow because you have say in how it grows, there's something intriguing about it."
    Their Murder Point oysters are named for an actual spot on nearby Mon Louis Island, where a dispute over oyster beds is said to have ended in murder. The Zirlotts have embraced the lore for their slogan: "Oysters worth killing for."
    We went out to their oyster farm under dark skies on a recent Tuesday morning. Their son Lane Zirlott was on a small barge in the middle of the plot with four long rows of cables strewn across PVC pipes, each holding 100 cylindrical baskets containing oysters. Clips on the pipes allow the Zirlotts to move the lines up and down, periodically bringing them above water so barnacle fouling -- "the ugly stuff" that grows on shells -- can dry off, creating a clean shell.
    Lane was opening the baskets and pouring out oysters onto a metal table, examining against a ruler to for size (at least 2 inches) and cup depth to decide whether it was time to harvest. He was hustling to pull as much as possible before noon, when harvesting would cease for the next 21 days under orders from the state because of heavy rainfall and concerns of runoff pollution.
    His father took an oyster in his hand and pried it open with a knife. "Look at that meat," he said admiringly, turning over the shell over to show off its yellow and purple hues.
    The Zirlotts are self-described "perfectionists" determined to make their business take off, and people are starting to take notice. Their oysters have been served in the region's most famed seafood restaurants, from New Orleans' Peche to Fisher's at Orange Beach Marina in Alabama, all the way to Kimball House.
    Alma Bryant High School aquaculture teacher Julian Stewart and his students grow oysters in Portersville Bay, Alabama, as part of a restoration project.
    Nearby were farms that supplied the oysters enjoyed by the Knofliceks at Kimball House, including the Bonus Points. They were cultivated by students from Alma Bryant High School in nearby Irvington, which is home to an aquaculture program where students grow freshwater lobsters. Teacher Julian Stewart and his students also grow oysters as part of an ongoing restoration project.
    That evening, I visited True restaurant in Montgomery, Alabama, where chef Miguel Figueroa served Murder Point oysters for the first time last week. He promoted the special offering on Instagram, and, to his surprise, crowds showed up.
    "People loved the idea of supporting Gulf seafood, especially from Alabama," he said.
    He had a few left over that he served to a party of three chatting over drinks at the bar with mignonette and cocktail sauce. They eagerly slurped them up, singing their praises in between gulps of wine.
    "These don't even need crackers."