Wild Oysters Vs Farmed Oysters
When it comes to oysters, the Alabama Gulf Coast does it best with both wild and farm-raised options that leave those who have a taste for the succulent creatures smacking their lips for more. Wild oysters have been harvested for centuries along the Gulf Coast while farm-raised oysters are new on the scene. Both offer delicious flavor and remarkable nutritional benefits, but there are some differences.
Wild oysters are collected from natural reefs on the bay floor, while farmed oysters are raised in an aquaculture environment just beneath the bay surface.
According to Alabama Oyster Aquaculture, just as recently as 2009, there wasn’t a single oyster farm in Alabama. Now, because of an increasing demand for a premium product, there are currently 18 Alabama oyster farms with others in the works. Top-end seafood restaurants and oyster bars are now featuring these boutique-style oysters on their menus.
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 despite their differences, both wild and farmed oysters are culturally and culinarily important.
“Wild oysters have played an important dietary role for human populations living along the coast for 10s of thousands of years, and for good reason — they are delicious and packed full of nutrients and vitamins that promote good health. Farmed oysters contain those same health benefits, but have only been produced in Alabama for around 15 years. In other parts of the US, oyster aquaculture is maybe only a few decades old,” Ricciardone said.
Ricciardone gives credit to the wild oyster harvesters saying a lot the aquaculture knowledge and practices comes from practices developed by the wild oyster fishermen, such as when to harvest, how oysters react to the seasons, how to handle predators and water quality.
“We’re standing on the wild guys’ shoulders. A lot of what we know was developed by them,” Ricciardone said.
But as the owner of an oyster aquaculture business, Ricciardone touts the benefits of farm-raised oysters.
“The biggest difference between wild and farm-raised oysters is that wild oysters are raised on the bottom of the bay or estuary and there’s no way of controlling the consistency of the shape between oysters. If you’ve been to an oyster bar, you’ve probably noticed the variety of shape in the wild oyster. Some are super thick. Some are longer and squattier, but they provide a good bit of meat. With oyster farming, we control the shell shape. Our oysters are between 2 ½ to 3 inches. They have a flat top and deep bowl, which holds that tasty liqueur. They are consistently easy to shuck and perfect for cup-side-down plating,” Ricciardone said.
He said both wild and farm-raised oysters are delicious when eaten raw, but wild oysters are larger and better for chargrilling and frying, while the smaller boutique/farm-raised oysters have a lighter taste and are more appealing for those trying oysters for the first time.
“The farm-raised oyster brings in a lot of new people interested in trying oysters thanks to the smaller size and shapely cup,” he said.
Ricciardone says farm-raised oysters have a cleaner appearance and a lighter flavor because they’re grown on top of the water column.
“We don’t get as much of an effect from the silt on the bottom of the seabed, like wild oysters do. Our farm-raised oysters grow quickly because there’s a lot of food for them in the top of the water column. And since we use a strain of oyster that doesn’t reproduce, they can put all of their energy into growing. It typically takes our oysters approximately eight months to mature. Wild oysters take time off from feeding to breed, so they can take a year or two to get to the right size,” Ricciardone said.
He said they’re also able to dry out and clean off their farm-raised oyster shells throughout the growing process to keep them looking nice and clean.
“With oyster farming, it’s possible to create a branded product where 70 to 80 percent of the oysters have a similar shape unique to our farm. We are able to choose a location where the current, food source, water salinity and other natural variables, as well as how the oysters get tumbled and sorted, work to provide a specific shape and type of oyster that we can offer to the chefs as a branded product.”
He said on the other hand, there’s not enough control over wild oyster beds to create a branded product. Those who harvest wild oyster are relying on their natural life cycle and how they grow. They can’t control many variables.
Ecological And Economic Impact Of Farmed and Wild Oysters
He said both wild reefs and oyster farms provide incredible benefits to the ecosystem.
“Wild oyster reefs help prevent erosion, provide water clarity, fish and bait habitats and protect marshes, especially during the hurricane season. They provide wave breaks that help protect sea grass in certain areas. Even though it may sound counterintuitive, there are big benefits to having people out there harvesting wild oysters – as long as the harvest is done in a sustainable manner. The demand for wild oysters and their positive economic impact gives the state and the community a reason to protect the wild reefs. The people fishing for the wild oysters can provide feedback on the health of the reef and numbers of oysters. Because wild oysters are so valuable to those who harvest them and eat them, everyone will work together to make sure there’s a sustainable population. They’d be easy to ignore if they weren’t utilized.”
He said oyster farms positively affect the ecosystem because they also provide habitats for marine creatures, filter the water and they add more oysters to the bay.
“We buy seed from labs locally and put them in the water. Although the vast majority do not spawn, some do, so we supply more oysters to the water than we take out,” Ricciardone said.
There’s plenty of demand for both wild oysters and farm-raised oysters and both create a lot of local jobs in seafood and processing industry. They’re also a tourist attraction with some people making trips to the Gulf specifically for the oysters.
Ricciardone said when it comes to oysters, both wild and farm-raised, Alabama is doing a lot of things right.
“For many years, Alabama was the top oyster-processing state in the union. It also harvested a lot of oysters from our waters. We were even taking oysters from Texas and Louisiana and doing the shucking and distributing. Alabama has a heritage as a key in the oyster supply chain. The state was producing and distributing huge numbers of oysters from the early 1900s through the 1960s or 70s. Things declined over the years, and until the 2018-19 season, no harvesting was allowed at all due to low population numbers. The reasons were complex, but development that impacted waterflow, the BP accident, over harvesting, fresh water events, siltation, and potentially wave energy in the bay all negatively impacted the oyster reefs. But through conservation efforts and farming, the oyster population and production rate is getting healthy again. And the state is working hard to keep it that way,” Ricciardone said.
After the 2018-2019 closure, 22,070 sacks (each about 85 pounds) were taken in 2020-2021, and then that basically doubled that last year. The hope is that it continues going up.
Alabama ensures the population is sustainable and healthy through a number of measures. The state even sends down divers to examine the reefs, and it only allows those who harvest wild oysters to use tongs, which is a traditional method that helps limit the number of oysters that are harvested. Other states use boats and dredges. The wild oyster fishermen also take the dead oyster material and return it to the reefs. Additional state and nonprofit efforts include adding “culch” shell base, which the oyster reefs need to thrive and grow.
“Sometimes the wild guys get a tough wrap for sustainability, but in cases where they’re re-seeding and/or reapplying culch shell material to the beds and contributing to the reefs and sustainability in a positive way, they deserve positive credit.”
When it comes to choosing between wild and farm-raised oysters, it’s about preference, and there’s no rule that says you can’t enjoy both. Not only are they delicious, but wild and farmed oysters each help the environment and the economy and provide numerous health benefits. Best of all, these days, there’s plenty of both to go around.