Why The Southeast Could Become The Napa Valley Of Oysters

Great article from NPR on the exciting future of single select oysters grown in the Southeast:

Oysters are the sea's version of fine wine: Their taste varies with the water they grow in. And slow-growing oysters from northern waters — like the briny Wellfleets of Massachusetts and the sweet, mild Kumamotos of the Pacific Northwest — are among the most coveted.

That may be changing now. An oyster renaissance in the Southeastern U.S. is underway — from Virginia all the way down to Florida's Apalachicola Bay. The region is adopting the aquaculture that restored a decimated oyster industry in the north, and it has led to a huge boost in oyster production.

"The oyster industry is now casting its eye down the Southeast coast and seeing paradise," says Rowan Jacobsen, author of The Essential Oyster: A Salty Appreciation of Taste And Temptation to be published in October. "More than 6,000 miles of shoreline unmarred by a single metropolis and all ripe for growing oysters."

Southern states such as Georgia and the Carolinas have until now been known for wild oyster reefs that cluster in fantastical moonscapes. They are the result of "spat" — free swimming oyster larvae — that settle on other oysters and grow upon them. The clusters need to be hammered and pried apart in order to be served as succulent singles. That extra work, along with the fact that in warm months southern oysters are more susceptible to an infection called Vibrio vulnificus, has limited their appeal.

Aquaculture has changed that, and Virginia leads the way. The state turned to Standish Allen of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, to develop a triploid oyster from the common Crassostrea virginica, one that was already native to Virginia's waters.

Triploids are grown in hatcheries and then "tended" in the ocean. They are widely used today, because they have three sex chromosomes instead of two, which renders them sterile — allowing them to put all their energy into growing. As a result, they reach plump maturity in less than two years (as opposed to a wild oyster's three years). They are the "seedless watermelons" of the seafood world.

Cultivated oysters live in protective cages or floats, but they still attract marine life, from grass shrimp to crabs, that benefit the ecosystem. And, since every oyster filters and purifies 50 gallons of water a day— while feasting on algae and removing organic and inorganic particles from the water — this is one food that actually improves the ecosystem.

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Author Rowan Jacobsen says he once called the Southeast "the sleeping giant of the oyster world." But now, he says, "the giant isn't sleeping anymore. With the warm south's longer season and faster growth, they can undercut northern producers on price, and they are poised to become a staple at oyster bars across North America."

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