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Cookoff Showcases Oysters

November 8, 2012

By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Whether you like them fried, stewed or nude, consuming oysters is a tasty tradition in Alabama, not to mention an important economic driver on the Alabama Gulf Coast.
Evidence of that occurred during the Nov. 3 weekend at the 5th annual Oyster Cook-Off in Gulf Shores.

More than 40 chefs from around the Southeast cooked oysters three ways in the event at the Hangout, which drew a significantly larger crowd this year, according to Chris Nelson of Bon Secour Fisheries, which provided some of the tasty mollusks for the competition.

“It was a really good event,” Nelson said. “The chefs fixed oysters three different ways, Cajun oyster, Oysters Rockefeller and a raw presentation. They served more than 30,000 oysters. It was a much bigger event than last year. It was twice as big as last year. They had a shucking contest as well. It was a big time. It was good for the industry and the area. And the weather was perfect.”

The cook-off wasn’t the only big event that happened recently. The other occurred in the middle of Mobile Bay when the Alabama Marine Resources Division allowed the area’s oystermen to harvest an oyster reef that had been closed for many years due to water-quality issues.

Director Chris Blankenship said Marine Resources has been working with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to get the reef opened. Marine Resources pulled water samples and oyster meat samples over the course of about two years and submitted them to ADPH and the FDA for testing.

“As far as I can tell, this area has been off-limits to oyster harvest since the late ’70s due to concerns with pollutants,” Blankenship said. “But great strides have been made in Mobile County and the Mobile Bay watershed in cleaning up some of those pollutants. The tests showed there wasn’t any contamination, and the oysters were safe for consumption.

“I think that’s a good testament of the progress that’s been made in the Mobile Bay watershed over the past several decades to clean up the waters. I think that is because of a unified effort by all those affected. I think people are significantly more environmentally conscious than we were in the ’70s.”
The natural reef just north of East Fowl River yielded 2,300 sacks of oysters before Marine Resources shut the area down again.

“When the harvest started, they caught the oysters off the reef pretty rapidly,” Blankenship said. “We closed it to protect it from overharvest.”

Nelson said the opening of the reef in the middle of Mobile Bay is a very positive sign, both from a management perspective and an environmental standpoint.

“The environmental standpoint is self-explanatory in that if you’re able to harvest oysters out of an area that had been closed for a long time, it means the water quality in the bay has improved since the Clean Water Act was signed,” Nelson said. “From the management perspective, it means we can take a new look on a regular basis on how we can manage the resource to achieve more yield to the optimal sustainable yield. In this case, you had a resource in the upper part of the bay that was not being utilized. I do have some background in shellfish biology, and an unharvested reef is not as productive as a harvested reef. When you uncover oysters or break them apart, you cause new recruitment on the reef.

“For whatever reason, that reef had survived floods and droughts and it was at statis. It didn’t appear to be expanding or dying. My hope is that by harvesting that reef, it will begin to expand and grow and continue to provide a harvestable resource.”

Although Alabama lags behind in acres of bottom suitable for oyster production, the state annually ranks at or near the top in the number of oysters that pass through the state on the way to market.

“Alabama is either No. 1 or No. 2 in number of oysters processed, either shipped in the shell or shucked,” Nelson said. “There are an awful lot of shucked oysters, coming primarily from Louisiana and Texas. All those small operations in Bayou La Batre, Coden and Heron Bay, collectively, they process a lot of oysters. We (Bon Secour Fisheries) do it, too. We bring in shell oysters, wash them and sort them by size and shape. The medium-sized oysters go out in the shells to raw bars. We open the other oysters and sell them in sizes all the way from gallon buckets to eight-ounce cups.”

Nelson said the oyster harvest suffered a double whammy when a plague of oyster drills decimated the reefs during the drought years of 2007 and 2008 followed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Fortunately, recent news is much better.

“The industry is certainly recovering,” he said. “We were down to just a handful of processors after the oil spill. Since then, the majority of operations are back processing oysters.”

Nelson thinks Marine Resources’ current oyster management plan could help flatten out the fluctuations in the oyster market.

“Back to the management of the resource in the upper bay, I hope they continue to look at opening new areas,” he said. “The point of that is the lower part of the bay doesn’t have to be the only area allowed to produce oysters. When it’s really dry, that lower part of the bay is not going to produce well because of the high salinity, which leads to predation by drills, redfish and black drum. When it’s like that, the upper part of the bay would have good conditions for growing oysters. So we need a management plan in place that would allow for the harvest from those reefs in the upper part of the bay when it’s dry. When we go through a wet cycle, the upper bay would be closed and the lower bay would produce better.

“That sort of approach had not been implemented in the state up until recently, so I think it’s a real positive sign for the future.”

The recently harvested natural reef is about three miles north of the Relay Reef, where more than 100,000 bushels of oysters were transplanted in 2010 from upper Mobile Bay to a new reef about 2.5 miles south of the mouth of East Fowl River.

Although the natural reef didn’t stay open long, it did provide oysters to the market when demand was high.
“Those 2,300 sacks in October helped with the shortage of supply, especially for the shops in Alabama,” Blankenship said. “Oyster catchers were getting 40-42 cents per pound in the shell, which is the highest I can recall them ever being.

“Since we closed that reef, Cedar Point West has opened. That harvest is averaging 600 sacks per day. They are good-sized oysters; good, marketable oysters. A lot of them are singles, which is good for half-shells and shucked products.”

For those who are now salivating and thinking about a trip to the seafood market or seafood restaurant, visit www.eatalabamaseafood.com and search for your favorite seafood under the “find it” section.

PHOTOS: (By Jason Hermann and David Rainer) After the Marine Resources Division determined that the natural reef north of East Fowl River needed to be closed, the oystermen in Mobile Bay headed to the familiar Cedar Point West reef to continue the harvest. Jesse Bethune opens a big, succulent oyster from Mobile Bay at Wintzell’s Oyster House on the Eastern Shore.

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