Growing up in the South, I was exposed to many “Old Wives’ Tales,” ranging from not cleaning your house or clothes on New Year’s Day to the one that everyone, including the northern states, knows, “don’t consume oysters in months without an R.” While most “tales” are full of superstition, the “R” tale was one of biosecurity, and was mainly truthful until two new types of “R” came about; Regulations and Refrigeration. The tale came about due to the rise in food poisonings from shellfish in the warmer summer months that do not contain a “R,” such as June and July. The rise in food poisoning came about from the practices used by the oyster “tongers” at the time. Commercial harvest of wild oysters is a very labor-intensive job that requires long days on the water and constant tonging, measuring, and sorting of oysters as they come off the bottom. During the summer, the oysters would sit on the deck of the boat for hours in the heat, causing microorganisms and bacteria to flourish inside the closed oyster. Bacteria, like Vibrio, would replicate to harmful levels inside of the oysters and when consumed by a human, could cause life-threatening illnesses.
That was then, and this is now. While the consumption of wild Florida oysters during the summer is not allowed (closed harvest season for wild oysters during the summer in Florida), you can still find oysters from all over the US, and farmed oysters from Florida are still allowed to be consumed during the summer. Biosecurity is a major factor involving food production and aquaculture, and without biosecurity, the consumption of Florida-farmed oysters would be prohibited. Oyster farmers in Florida must follow a very rigorous biosecurity plan that includes State-issued harvest times, water-to-refrigeration requirements, reporting of harvest and planting, and twice-daily temperature monitoring requirements. The regulations for harvest times and refrigeration requirements have scientific backing, showing a statistical difference in Vibrio concentrations between properly handled oysters and neglected oysters, with properly handled oysters having little to no concentrations of Vibrio. For instance, during the summer months, oyster farmers must have oysters harvested and in the cooler before 11am and down to 45°F within 2 hours of storing in cooler.
While there is an increased concentration of harmful bacteria during these warmer months, properly cared-for oysters help limit the growth and proliferation of the bacteria. Another myth is that Vibrio doesn’t exist in cold, winter waters. Vibrio can exist year-round, and people with health risks, including immune-suppressed patients and those with diabetes, should exercise extreme caution when consuming raw seafood. When purchasing seafood for personal consumption, make sure to bring a cooler with ice and place your seafood above the ice, making sure to not allow any fresh water to touch the seafood. When storing seafood at home, make sure they are in a container that can breathe, and cover with a moist paper towel to keep their gills wet. Oysters are typically good for 10-14 days after the harvest date, so make sure you check the tags and consume within time.
Next summer, when you see farmed oysters on the menu, remember the new R’s and order a couple dozen for the table. The need for support from your local oyster farmer is most needed during those months without R, so slurp them down all summer and thank your local oystermen and women!
Easy French Mignonette Recipe
Recipe for 2doz Oysters
¼ cup Red Wine Vinegar
¼ cup Champagne Vinegar
1 tablespoon of Finely Chopped Shallot
1 teaspoon of Fresh Crushed Black Pepper
Juice of ½ Lemon
Combine all ingredients together. Spoon over shucked, chilled raw oysters.
There is a term that all oyster farmers dislike, it is almost like that one villain from a famous book/movie series where they shouldn’t say his name. That term is “unexplained spring/summer mortality” and it has been a growing issue along with the expansion of oyster farming throughout the southeast. While the art of oyster farming has been around since the time of the Romans, it is a relatively new venture here in the Gulf of Mexico, and Florida is home to over one hundred oyster farms. These farms are meticulously cared for by the oyster farm crew, with many different anti-fouling techniques and biosecurity measures in practice to provide the customer with a safe, clean product that you can consume even in the months without an R (another article on that coming later). Each year, farm managers can expect a 10-30% mortality event during the transition from winter into spring/summer, hence the term “unexplained spring/summer mortality.” Researchers and scientists from all over the southeast have been actively working to find a cause for this phenomenon, but the answer has been hard to find.
Our Pensacola Bay has been a hotbed for oysters lately; The Nature Conservancy recently constructed 33 oyster beds along Escribano Point in East Bay, the establishment of the Pensacola & Perdido Bay Estuary Program, acquisition of a $23 million restoration grant with $ 10 million towards 1,482 acres of oyster restoration, and the establishment of oyster farms and hatcheries. In Pensacola Bay, there are currently 5 oyster farms in operation, one of those farms being a family-owned and operated Grayson Bay Oyster Company. Brandon Smith has been managing the business and farm for over 4 years now and has experienced mortality events during those prime spring/summer months. In recent years, they have experienced mortality events ranging from minimal to what many would consider “catastrophic,” and reports from around Florida and the Southeast convey a similar message. Concerned for not only the future of his family farm, but other oyster farms in the Southeast, he has been working with the most experienced institutions and groups in 2022 to possibly get an answer on his and other local “unexplained mortality events.” Each road led to the same answer of “we aren’t quite sure,” but this didn’t deter Smith or other the farmers who are dealing with similar issues.
In 2023, Smith was invited to participate in a Florida-Wide program to track water quality on their farm. This project, led by Florida Sea Grant’s Leslie Sturmer from the Nature Coast Biological Station in Cedar Key, Florida, hopes to shed some light on the changes in water quality during the transition from winter to spring and spring to summer. Water samples have also been taken weekly to preserve plankton abundance and the presence of any harmful algae if a mortality event does occur. With the hottest July on record occurring in 2023, temperature could play a role in mortality events, and now researchers are equipped with the right tools and open lines of communication to possibly find a solution to the problem.
As with traditional farming on land, oyster farming takes a mentally strong individual with an incredible work ethic and the ability to adapt to change. The Southeast has a resilient system of oyster farmers who display these traits and continue to put their noses down and “plant” seed every year for the continuation of a growing yet small industry, even through the hardest of trials and tribulations. Through collaboration with local and state institutions, stakeholders, programs, and citizens, oyster farmers are hopeful that they can solve this “unexplained mortality event” and help develop resilient farming techniques. An important message is local farms that have environmental and economic impacts cannot exist without the support of their community.
Aquaculture is growing faster than any other animal food-production sector. The development of new technologies, stagnation of wild capture fisheries, and the increase in seafood demand are all contributing to a 5.3% increase in aquaculture production within the last two decades (FAO, 2020). While global aquaculture production continues to expand, the U.S. is experiencing a seafood trade deficit of $14 billion. The U.S. is clearly in urgent need of more domestic seafood production.
Aquaculture is a growing industry in Florida and one of the best opportunities for expanding seafood production is in offshore or open-ocean marine aquaculture. Offshore aquaculture production has the potential to help meet the protein requirements for a burgeoning population and provide seafood security. Additionally, it can help support working waterfront communities and even enhance recreational dive tourism and recreational fishing. However, the complexity of offshore production is not fully understood by the public. In fact, there is a small, but vocal, anti-aquaculture activist groups that often uses false or outdated information to undermine public confidence and resists even low-impact or environmentally responsible operations. Identified concerns include that the expansion of marine aquaculture will adversely impact fishing, harm coastal communities, and degrade the oceans for other recreational users.
Proper siting of offshore aquaculture farms can address many of the identified concerns. In response, NOAA scientists have developed a tool, Ocean Reports, that can instantaneously analyze more than 100 ocean datasets to develop maps, graphics, and other details of selected areas in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. Users can get detailed information about habitats and species, industries in the area, potential hazards (such as undersea cables or shipwrecks), the economic value of ocean commerce, and other detailed oceanographic information.
Ocean reports has data useful to industry and science, but is user-friendly enough for other stakeholders, including students. Recently, students studying aquaculture at Freeport High School in Freeport, FL used the tool to search for potential offshore aquaculture sites off the coast of Florida. The tool is fun and easy to use, so feel free to visit the website to give it a try. https://www.marinecadastre.gov/oceanreports
February is American Heart Month and when I think of heart, my thoughts turn to seafood. Perhaps that is unusual, but I love seafood and the fact that the American Heart Association recommends 1 to 2 seafood meals a week fits right into my gastronomic plans. More seafood on your table can improve your overall health and help fight off infections.
During the recent pandemic, an increase in home cooking has resulted in a rise in seafood consumption. Consumers rediscovered frozen and canned fish, a trend that continues today. Canned tuna and fish stick consumption rose as home cooks perfected their tuna melts and fish sandwiches. Home chefs throwing fish steaks, aluminum wrapped fillets, shrimp, and even oysters on the grill have raised the bar on home-cooked meals.
Other new trends on the horizon are more innovative. How do Atlantic salmon hot dogs sound? High-end canned and jarred seafood, think canned smoked oysters, are gaining in popularity as well as being quick and easy to prepare. Nose to tail is another trend that promotes maximum utilization of the whole seafood product. Cooking fish whole or tanning fish skins for an upscale leather are new ways to enjoy seafood. Want to try something new? Sea vegetables, including kelp and other seaweed are taking the culinary world by storm because of their great taste and nutritional benefits.
Let us not forget about our furry friends. Sustainable seafood-based pet treats are gaining quite a bit of market share. Seafood has one of the lowest environmental footprints of any protein, and as such makes a great, healthy, sustainable snack for fido.
Sustainable seafood, both wild and farm-raised, is an option that is good for your heart and good for the planet. Buying sustainably harvested or raised seafood is one way you can do your part to protect the ocean and ensure plentiful seafood for the future. Make a resolution to try a new product, recipe, or cooking method during this month to celebrate a healthy heart.
There are a lot of good oyster quotes. One I remember from childhood is the saying to only eat oysters in months with the letter “r,” basically September to April. I believe this originated when all oysters came from the wild. This was a way to avoid the hot months that may have led to a watery oyster, or even food poisoning. Today, with the rise of oyster aquaculture and refrigeration, oysters can be enjoyed year-round.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently made the tough decision to shut down wild oyster harvesting in Apalachicola, FL for up to five years in response to a struggling bay oyster population threatened by water flow issues and overharvesting. This was devastating news to an area that historically produced 90% of the state’s oysters and 10% of the nation’s. On the bright side, oyster aquaculture has been steadily growing in the area and is working hard to fill some of the gap.
A team of Florida Sea Grant Agents recently made a visit to Apalachicola to learn more about this historic oyster town and how the industry is adapting. Our first stop was Water Street Seafood, the Florida Panhandle’s largest seafood distributer. Water Street provides a wide diversity of both fresh and frozen seafood, including oysters, delivering daily in northwest Florida and shipping worldwide. We visited their oyster processing facility where we saw mesh bags of oysters brought in from Louisiana and Texas. The oysters, both farmed and wild caught, are carefully cleaned and sorted, with some going to the live, halfshell, restaurant market and some shucked onsite for the shucked market.
Next, we visited one of the many new oyster aquaculture farms in the area. Oysters farms are permitted by the state and are located in waters that have been carefully evaluated for their suitability for oyster production. Small plots are leased to the farmer allowing off-bottom production in mesh bags teathered with anchors in the shallow, productive bay waters. Oyster farmers tend to their crop by turning the bags regularly to reduce fouling of the oyster shell, and sorting by size as the oyster grows. Oysters take between eight to eighteen months to reach a harvest size.
Given the increasing demand for oysters by tourists and locals, we can thank aquaculture for keeping these tasty gems on our plates. If you are lucky enough to find some locally raised oysters on the menu, take the opportunity to try something new and support a local farmer.
An oyster farmer visiting his lease to monitor his crop. (credit: L. Tiu) T
Fresh live oysters from an Apalachicola Oyster Farm (credit: L. Tiu)
Oyster bag holding cooler at Water Street Seafood with green bags holding wild caught oysters and purple bags holding farm raised oysters. (credit: L. Tiu)
It’s February and for many, our thoughts turn to romance and other things that make the heart happy, like seafood! There is a strong “love” connection between consuming seafood and heart health. Fish and shellfish are low in saturated fat, high in protein and fairly easy and quick to cook. But seafood has a secret weapon in the battle for our hearts as it is considered a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. The health effects of omega-3 fatty acids have been extensively investigated, and it appears that marine fish oil lowers triglycerides, boosts HDL cholesterol, provides other cardiovascular benefits, fights inflammation, and reduces blood clot formation.
The current recommendation from the American Heart Association is 1 to 2 seafood meals, 8 ounces or more, per week be consumed to reduce the risk of congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, and sudden cardiac death, especially when seafood replaces the intake of less healthy foods. This translates into 250 to 500 mg of omega-3 per day or 1750 to 3500 mg per week. For the past 30 years, Americans’ weekly consumption of seafood has hovered around 5 oz per week, with only 10% to 20% of U.S. consumers meeting the 8 ounces minimal federal dietary guideline.
Historically, attention has focused on wild, cold-water, fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines as sources of the most omega-3 fatty acids. However, in this case variety is a key. With a growing number of aquaculture fish and shellfish on the market it is important to note that recent studies show for some species of salmon or trout, omega-3 levels are higher in farm-raised species, due to their overall higher fat content. In other good news, many of our local Gulf of Mexico species have been shown to contain good amounts as well. This information means that fishermen and women can eat home-caught fish to get the needed omega-3 fatty acids. Gulf fish are also an excellent source of protein and other nutrients. The following Table contains the omega-3 fatty acid content of some of the most frequently consumed fish and shellfish species in the U.S. So do your heart a favor and start feeding it right.
Omega-3 Content of Frequently Consumed Seafood Products