A revolution is taking place in Fairhope, Alabama, and it's all thanks to a group of farmers and scientists who are revolutionizing Alabama's oyster industry by establishing their own aquaculture infrastructure. Oysters are a “keystone species” for our waterways, as they help improve water quality in our bays by consuming excess phytoplankton and creating new artificial reefs that are beneficial to several aquatic species. Compared to the traditional clamp oyster harvesting method in Alabama, farmed oysters offer a unique opportunity to capitalize on a growing market without taking a high degree of risk. Oysters from any Gulf state can be shipped to a processing plant in Alabama, where they are shelled, then packaged in a container by a distributor and sold.
This has put Alabama at the forefront of the local oyster market, with groups such as Oyster South promoting “a viable national aquaculture industry near the coast that can provide a major economic boost to coastal communities in the region.” In a short film made by the Southern Foodways Alliance, an oyster farmer from Alabama refers to this bivalve revival as an “oyster revolution.” Beyond the business opportunities that come with opening your own oyster farm, it's good for coastal Alabama ecosystems. For chef George Reis, from the 5 Point Public House oyster Bar in Birmingham (Alabama), the most important thing is merroir, those unique flavors that are evident in the different cultivation processes used by oyster farmers, as well as in the flavors that are produced in different environments. Starting your own oyster farm involves a significant investment in terms of time and money, but there are many success stories that can serve as an example for your business. What has become a myth has its roots in reality, but its origin dates back to the days before refrigeration, when transporting products such as oysters was much more difficult.
And if you're wondering about pearls, the Oriental oyster can produce small pearls, but they don't have a significant size and therefore have no commercial value. The local oyster industry has helped to sponsor cleanup initiatives in the bay, as well as surveillance organizations. Despite natural and man-made setbacks, Alabama is focusing on turning its losses into medium-term assets by creating a market for locally farmed oysters. And because there's still demand for shelled oysters that grow naturally in the Gulf, these new farms don't compete with local fishermen. If you're getting together for a party or family event, scalloped oysters and oyster filling will be a hit with the crowd. According to Sterner, the investment of time to produce a marketable oyster can range from one to three years, depending on the type of oyster. The oyster revolution taking place in Fairhope is not only transforming Alabama's economy but also its environment.
By creating their own aquaculture infrastructure and promoting locally farmed oysters, farmers and scientists are helping to improve water quality while providing economic opportunities for coastal communities.