What’s The Best Location For An Oyster Farm
Those delicious boutique oysters you enjoy at your favorite high-end restaurant on the Gulf didn’t achieve their perfect size and taste by accident. Before the oysters ever hit your plate, much care and attention must go into producing a high-quality, consumer-safe, flavorful oyster that the top restaurants are proud to serve their customers. The first and most important step in producing the perfect boutique oyster is selecting the location of the oyster farm. Everything from water condition, to the water depth and temperature, to the location of the farm in relation to commercial properties and rivers all have to be just right to produce those just-right oysters with the deep cup and umami flavor that everyone loves. And finding that perfect spot is no easy task.
Searching For The Perfect Oyster Farm Location
Anthony Ricciardone, co-founder of Admiral Shellfish Company, an aquaculture farm that produces delicious, fresh raw oysters for the premium half-shell market out of Gulf Shores, Alabama, says finding the prime location for the oyster farm required a bit of trial and error.
“I’ve been farming oysters since 2018 and started off further north in the Bay on the eastern shore. The oysters grew fine in that location, but there wasn’t as much of a tidal flush, so the influence from the local rivers was dominant. The natural spring floods created some issues with the water quality, making it a bit dirtier. I wasn’t proud of the oyster quality the area was producing, so I decided to move locations. I wanted to be able to walk into any James Beard restaurant with my oysters and be proud of what I was showing them. I wanted to be able to stand behind my product,” Ricciardone said.
Ricciardone began looking at old charts around the Bay in search of the ideal location. He needed an area with a sandy bottom away from major developments. He analyzed the entire coastline within a reasonable driving distance from his home and narrowed the possibilities down to 10 or 20 prime parcels.
“I started contacting the owners to see if I could lease some seabed. I wrote letters and knocked on doors. One day, I got a call from Chris Head, who had selected the same parcel that I was heavily looking at. Using the same method I was using, Chris had determined that the same 200-foot-strecth of beach at the tip of Fort Morgan was ideal for an oyster farm. He ended up calling me and asking if I was interested in partnering up with him on an oyster farm business. We met up and decided to work together and now he’s not only my business partner but one of my best friends,” Ricciardone said.
The property spans about six acres, which the partners say is ideal.
“You want a location that allows you to hit your goals. If you start off in good water with good substrate, but you don’t have enough space to produce enough oysters, then you’re in trouble. We can produce 250,000 oysters per acre on our site, which is perfect.”
State Regulations Dictate Oyster Farm Locations
He says there are two main factors that he and his partner considered when selecting the perfect location for the Admiral Shellfish oyster farm – regulatory issues and environmental concerns.
Ricciardone said those interested in oyster farming need the approval of six state agencies, as well as the coast guard and the core of engineers, which is quite an intense process. The agencies and organizations look at it from the perspective of protecting the natural resources, such as waterways and seagrass, and protecting archaeological artifacts and historically significant areas. They also work to ensure only clean, top-quality oysters are produced and sold to the consumer.
This process can take anywhere from 8 months to 2 years, depending on delays caused by regulatory complexity, how backed up the agencies are, and other local issues.
“There’s a lot of history in our area, such as the Battle of Mobile Bay, Native American history and Civil War history and it’s important to protect historically significant areas and artifacts. We had to get an archeologist to come out and survey the area to make sure we weren’t disturbing an important historical area,” Ricciardone said.
He said the agencies also must consider the public and employees’ physical safety, especially in regard to the location of the farm. You don’t want to set up a farm near a public channel or boat ramp that recreational boaters use. The farm can’t obstruct people. Navigational channels, marinas, high density developments, and places where a lot of swimmers are do not mix well with an aquaculture operation.
He explains that you also don’t want to set up a farm anywhere near a big condo development because the developers may find a way to make it troublesome for the oyster farmer. And it’s imperative to stay away from major sources of industry or pollutants, such as rivers draining by big cities like Mobile, to ensure that your oysters are clean and safe to consume.
“The agencies actually go out and test for contaminates, sewage and red tides. They test around farming and Bay areas on a regular basis. Gulf seafood has a bad name up North, but actually we have stricter rules than most places in the country. Alabama’s Department of Health and Marine Resources Division are really good at keeping the public safe,” Ricciardone said.
Environmental Traits That Make For An Ideal Oyster Farm Location
When it comes to picking the perfect spot, Head says the area must have a sandy bottom for walkability and a cleaner environment and a daily fresh flow of Gulf water for higher salinity, which enhances the flavor.
“The sandy bottom provides a firmer surface to walk on as opposed to mud, which can also host parasites. Sand doesn’t kick up particulates and sulfurs into the water column like a muddy bottom does. The sand also allows the oysters to get subtle flavors from minerals without overwhelming them with debris,” Head said.
The oyster farmers explain that wave energy is also important, and that rougher water is better. Choppy, turbulent water tumbles the oysters, which helps them form a deeper cup, which holds the liqueur, which enhances the flavor.
“We get tropical storm-level winds in the winter, and that higher wave energy helps. Water that is choppy and rough tumbles the oyster, which chips off the edges causing them to create a deeper cup and makes them more resilient. The more wave energy, the better. Other oyster farms have to pull out and tumble their oysters at least once a month, but we only have to do it a few times a year,” Ricciardone said.
Head said the Coriolis effect, which is how the water rotates, was also considered when choosing the location of the farm, because the rotation determines the salinity, which determines the flavor.
“Everything swings to right in the northern hemisphere. By choosing that site, we knew we would get a dump of salty water coming out of the Gulf, which is just what we wanted. When the water comes into the pass, it can turn right (East) towards our farm and stick around for a bit, pushing back against more of the inland waters,” Head said.
Easy access to the farm location was also important. Ricciardone explains that the employees need to be able to drive to the worksite in a reasonable amount of time.
“Our farm is located near a major road, which makes it easy to access, but is remote in the sense that it’s far away from residential areas and industrial developments to protect it from pollutants. There are also boat launches nearby, which are convenient,” Ricciardone said.
Seasoned oyster farmers understand that each environmental and safety factor must be considered or the oysters’ quality, shape, taste and safety will be compromised. Admiral Shellfish’s delicious and appealing boutique oysters are a direct reflection of the thought, preparation and hard work that went in to selecting the best location for the oyster farm.