Industry News

Gulf’s First Oyster Farm Continues to Grow

by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor

Starting as a volunteer oyster gardener way back at the turn of the century – that’s the year 2000 for those with short memory – Steve Crockett planted the first off-bottom oysters in the Gulf as a reef restoration project for the Mobile Bay National Estuary program. Fifteen years later Point Aux Pins Oysters is one of the largest Gulf off-bottom oyster operations supplying restaurants and grocery chains across the South.

 

Gathering figures on the success rate of the restoration project, a grad student informed Crockett that data confirmed he had the best oyster growth rate of any sites on the eastern or western shores of the Bay, Dauphin Island, or Coden. That was enough to convince him to try growing oysters, at least for his own use and for friends.

“We started production the following year,” said Crockett. “We adopted the Australian Adjustable Longline Method for growing our oysters. We fiddled around with that for a couple of years but ended up losing our shirts, as well as our camp house, when Katrina stuck the Alabama coast in 2005.”

Three years later, and with a new house, Crockett was determined to try once more to farm caged grown oysters.

“This was about the same time Bill Walton appeared at the Auburn University Shellfish Lab,” he told Gulf Seafood News. “He was instrumental in our decision to get back into off-bottom caged oysters.”

Getting seed from Walton’s Auburn shellfish lab, in 2009 the East Grand Bay oysterman put his first crop of oysters in the water, while at the same time testing four different kinds of grow out gear.

Australian Longline Method

“After running tests on various growing methods we decided to stay with the Australian method using a run system,” he said. “This system operates off of two pair of plastic cable strung between pilings in the water. Every ten feet there is a pair of PVC pipes with clips screwed into the side. A cable rests on each of these clips, with baskets hanging from the lines allowing for the oysters to be raised and lowered out of the water similar to that of a clothes line.”

Approximately every two week he raises the oysters from the water for 24 to 36 hours to allow the gear and oysters to dry out. This also helps remove barnacles and oyster sets from the gear and oysters and other fouling organisms. Fouling involves mud, weeds and other biological elements clogging up the oysters, which can suffocate them or, at the least, make them less attractive.

When a storm is headed his way, like Hurricane Isaac in 2012, he simply lowers the lines down to the bottom keeping the oysters safe from storm surge and wave action.

Born in Louisville, KY, Crocket grew up in Greenville, MS. His Point aux Pins oyster farm was his introduction into the Gulf commercial seafood community. Working with his wife Dema, he plans and oversees the daily oyster operations.

“My nephews helped run the operation for the first three years, but now I am pleased to have Hugh and Brandon McClure who are in charge of operations,” he said.

Crockett gets his seed oysters from both the Auburn University hatchery as well as the LSU hatchery on Grand Isle. They are moved into cages when they’re big enough to not fall through mesh bags. The caged oyster feed from the same nutrients in the water as wild oysters. Their taste is also the same; the only difference is they can be grown to a uniform size.

“What we are trying to do is produce a product that is consistent in size, shape and quality, and so far we have been successful in doing that,” said Crockett. “We don’t feed them, and we don’t medicate them. Our target size oyster is 2 ¾ to 3 ¼, right about 3 inches. We do occasionally have a call for larger oysters, and we make sure they make it over to Texas because they like bigger oysters.

The idea of oyster farming became particularly attractive when the population of oyster drill, a small member of the conch family, spiraled out of control in Mobile Bay.

In the wild, the predatory drill climbs onto an oyster and secretes an acid as they simultaneously chew through its shell. Once in, they use their straw-like mouths to slurp up the succulent bi-valve.

From October to March, Crockett harvests his world-class Point aux Pins oysters for the half-shell market and he is increasing oysters production yearly.

“Our first year we harvested and sold more than 30,000 oysters, our second was 40,000, then four a few years we averaged 60,000, with last year we topped out at more than 90,000 oyster harvested and sold,” he explained about his companies oyster production.

Half-Shell Market

Alabama growers are required to sell their harvest to a certified shellfish processor so he turns to a number of Gulf processors to distribute his crop.

“We sell a whole lot of our oyster to restaurants along the Gulf coast, as well as in Birmingham, an oyster bar in a suburb of St. Louis and the Reef Restaurant in Houston,” Crockett said. “Whole Foods has also picked up our product. Last year was our third year and we were in 27 of their stores in the Southeastern U.S., and I hope get into their Mid-Atlantic and Southwest region this year.”

“We have marketed and sold Steve and Dema’s Point aux Pins oysters throughout the Eastern U.S. and have found them to be extremely well received by both retailers and restaurants,” said Chris Nelson, Vice-President of Alabama’s Bon Secour Fisheries and Gulf Seafood Institute Board member. According to Crockett Bon Secour has been his largest distributor.

On his one-acre lease, he has approximately 300,000 growing for harvest this coming season, as well as another 400,000 for the following year. He has plans to expand the number of runs, capping out at around an annual production of 500,000 oysters a year.

According to Crockett, the Auburn University Shellfish lab is helping train families interested in making a living working on the water and producing off-bottom caged grown oysters.

“We are making money in the sense that if we don’t charge for our labor we can make it pay for itself and have something left over,” said the Alabama oyster farmer. “With a one or two acre farm a family of four or five can easily make a living doing this.”

This year he is also starting a limited summer harvest of triploid oysters. State law requires the oysters to be refrigerated within one hour of harvest resulting in the limited amount available.

“Since this is a new industry the regulations in Alabama regarding oystering and oyster distribution are not set up for this kind of practice in mind,” Crockett said. “Working closely with Auburn University, state legislators and various state departments, commissioners and staff, we have been able to get everybody moving in the same direction and it has made a world of difference.”

The traditional oyster industry in Alabama is faltering. Public reefs are only open six weeks out of a year for harvesting and sack limit are small. He continues to work on reef restoration, working with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to try and bring the reefs back so wild caught oyster industry can thrive again.

Crockett’ oysters are getting rave reviews everywhere they are served. ‘’We have had only compliments on the taste,” he said. ‘We will never be in competition with wild caught oysters, we are here to compliment them.”

About the Author: Ed Lallo is the editor of Gulf Seafood News, the online newsroom for the Gulf Seafood Institute. He is also CEO of Newsroom Ink, an online brand journalism agency. More from this author

Our Partners

Frontiers in Marine Science
American Academy of Underwater Sciences
UNESCO

ECO Magazine is a marine science publication committed to bringing scientists and professionals the latest ground-breaking research, industry news, and job opportunities from around the world.

Corporate

8502 SW Kansas Ave
Stuart, FL 34997

(772)-221-7720

Newsletter Signup

Please type your full name.

Please type your full name.

Invalid email address.

All emails include an unsubscribe link. You may opt-out at any time. Clicking subscribe confirms your acceptance of our privacy policy.