Bringing sweet, briny bivalves to the table year-round.
By Jennifer Greenhill-Taylor
Photos by AaronVan
Common knowledge says nobody with a lick of sense eats raw oysters in the summertime. But the adage about eating the bivalves only in months containing an “R” no longer holds true, according to a new generation of aquaculturists.
Responding to the decline of wild oysters along Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, oyster farmers, distributors and restaurateurs are collaborating to bring the briny bivalves to consumers all year round.
Those who shied away from summer oysters had good reason. Warm water triggers the wild crustaceans to spawn, resulting in sour-tasting oysters with depleted muscles. But of more concern are the bacteria that proliferate in the summer, particularly a carrier of food-borne illness called vibrio. Oysters are filter feeders, and those bacteria that exist naturally in open waters can get out of hand inside an oyster shell in the hours between bed and processor.
Now consumers have reason to celebrate. The twin issues of taste and bacteria have been solved by modern technology. Not only does the new generation of farmer whisk the crustaceans to the processor within minutes of harvest, but also, the oysters themselves have changed. Farmed oysters are hybrids, known as triploids, bred so they don’t spawn, and feature sweet, briny meat year-round.
Chefs around the state are championing the farmed oysters. Henry Salgado, chef-owner of The Local Pearl in New Smyrna, offers high praise: “The Indian River oysters are some of the best in the world in brininess, butteriness, sweetness—as good as anyone’s.” Orlando restaurateur Jason Chin was so smitten by the Florida-grown crustaceans he hosted a special oyster event at one of his eateries. In August!
Since 2014, when Florida’s government began to approve leases for farming oysters, more than 100 enthusiastic entrepreneurs have taken the leap into aquaculture.
On one end of the chain are the growing number of oyster farms, and on the other are eager chefs, restaurants and customers. Since swift handling is the key to taste and safety, speedy transport from oyster farm to oyster bar is essential.
Enter Colin Slemkewicz of Sublime Oyster Supply in Wakulla County. His parents founded an oyster farm in the Big Bend, and Slemkewicz recognized the need for a speedy delivery service for his tide-to-table customers. He started out with one refrigerated trailer, and now has a small fleet that delivers oysters to restaurants across the state, including a growing number in Central Florida. His promise: Oysters get from the farm to the icy confines of the processing plant to the consumer within 24 hours of harvest.
He responds to the no “R” cliché by stating, “Refrigeration has three Rs!”
Oyster farming is hardly new. The ancient Romans refined the art two millennia ago. When over-consumption decimated the wild beds in the Mediterranean, Roman entrepreneurs, like their present-day Florida counterparts, turned to oyster farming. Proof can be seen etched on rare glass flasks (from the 3rd century CE) showing buildings clearly labelled “OSTRIARIA,” (oyster house) built over the sea on pillars with bags of bivalves dangling into the brine below.
Oysters were the darlings of the New World, too, as witness massive shell mounds left by Florida’s native people. Southern waters continued to supply the nation with oysters until recently. But in the past decade, the vast beds along Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, once part of the world’s largest wild-oyster fishery, have diminished almost to the point of disappearing, along with the jobs of hundreds of old-style boat and tong oystermen.
How did conditions decline so drastically along the Southern coasts? How did those bountiful harvests and generational livelihoods disappear so swiftly? Many factors are to blame, experts say, some natural (hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, changing coastal habitats) and some definitely man-made (oil spills, overfishing, pollution, climate change, politics).
What has not declined is consumer appetite for the succulent shellfish. The result? A new style of oysterperson, using farming systems strikingly similar to those of the ancient Romans. The farmers are mostly young, not limited by conventional traditions, but stirred by science and trained in the careful management of off-bottom oyster farms, not wild beds.
Once again, the oysters are growing, and flowing to enthusiastic customers. About 2.8 million cultured oysters were produced in Florida in 2016, increasing by 38 percent to 3.9 million in 2018, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). Adding to their attraction, farmed oysters are on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch’s best choices list.
Like any agricultural undertaking, oyster farming is risky and requires hard work, says Leslie Sturmer, Regional Shellfish Aquaculture Extension Specialist at the University of Florida IFAS Extension. Involved in Florida aquaculture since the early 1980s in the Indian River Lagoon, Sturmer is well-versed in the status of sea farming in the 1990s and early 2000s. Clam farms became hugely popular and took much of the focus for those years. Then, in 2012, Apalachicola Bay, one of Florida’s main sources of wild oysters, fell victim to a combination of drought and the BP oil spill. It was declared a federal disaster area. There are very few wild oysters in the bay now, Sturmer says.
However, winds of change are blowing. “Over the past two decades we have seen amazing leaps forward in off-bottom oyster culture,” she says. Prospective oyster farmers realized there was a need, and persisted in their requests to the government for full water-column leases. Finally, in 2014, approvals began. As of now, 80 bottom leases have been modified for off-bottom oyster cultivation in three Florida west coast counties, and about 200 acres of new water-column leases have been created in seven Florida counties, according to state statistics.
Starting an oyster farm requires commitment. After an initial investment in gear and seed, neither of which are cheap, there’s lots of maintenance, lots of work, lots of regulation—and it takes eight months from seed to sale.
Sturmer speaks in admiring terms of the initial group of Franklin and Wakulla county oyster farmers. “This very diverse group worked together to overcome issues, to learn together,” she says. Today between the two counties, there are almost 100 growers. And it’s spreading. “Leases have begun to appear in Apalachicola Bay,” she says. “Everybody wants in. They are even naming their products! It’s fascinating.”
Central Florida Farms
While most of Florida’s oyster farms are on the Gulf Coast, one sits closer to Orlando, in the Indian River North, between Edgewater and Bethune Beach. Owned by Dennis David and his family, the Indian River Oyster Co. began in 2017 with a couple of hundred thousand oysters. David predicts he will have more than a million seed oysters by next year.
After 38 years as a wildlife biologist with the state, David retired, and along with his extended family, decided to start a business in the New Smyrna Beach area. “We always collected our own oysters over on the Gulf Coast,” he says, “and we started to do that here.”
They placed the smaller oysters on a sandy spot in the river, to see how they would grow. Three or four months later, they had. That’s when David said, partly in jest, “‘Have you thought about an oyster farm?’ We researched, and decided to go with it. We wanted to set roots, and do something positive for the community.”
It took them about 10 months to get everything going. “The lagoon has a fabulous flavor profile for oysters. The state does regular testing in the Indian River Lagoon, but the main water quality problems are far to the south of us. We are in Mosquito Lagoon and get a lot more water exchange.”
There are always risks, David says. “Hurricanes can wipe us out, and there’s climate change, water levels, acidification of the oceans that affects the shell formation.”
He is very aware of the possible bacteria problems, too, but is clear on the solutions. “An open oyster sits in flowing water. When you close it up, it becomes a Petrie dish and organisms can grow. We harvest at daylight, get them to the cooler by 8 a.m., then we process them, wash them, bag them and get them back in the cooler. As long as you get the oysters into the cooler quickly, they are going to be fine.”
Another nearby farm set its first seed in October 2019. Brian and Lindsay Rosegger of St. Petersburg founded Lost Coast Oysters in 2017. The first oyster lease in Tampa Bay, it lies in the waters of the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve, south of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. They hope to harvest their first oysters by spring of 2020.
An environmental scientist who worked as a subcontractor for NOAA, Rosegger did damage assessment on oysters after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “That sparked my interest in oyster culture. I learned that there was a real shortage of local, wild oysters, so when the state made changes on the clam leases and opened the full water column to lease, I was inspired to try something different.”
“We started applying for leases in early 2017. After four applications, we finally got the green light. It’s just the two of us, and we both like the water. Lucky thing.”
Baby oysters are incredible consumers, and need a lot of nutrition to thrive. They are fed cultured phytoplankton in the hatcheries, but once in open waters their food comes totally from the environment. “When you transfer seed to nature they need to be in a highly nutritious area,” Sturmer says.
The mouths of rivers or bays provide that nutrition. That’s why Apalachicola Bay, fed by the Apalachicola River, was such a great place for wild oysters. Farms in the Cedar Key area are enriched by the water coming from the Suwannee River. The north end of the Indian River and the mouth of Tampa Bay are both rich sources of food.
Chef Henry Salgado, owner of The Local Pearl Oyster Shoppe on Canal Street in New Smyrna, is an unabashed fan of locally farmed bivalves. A fifth-generation Floridian, Salgado always loved Florida oysters. “I couldn’t figure out why no one was harvesting here in the Indian River area, and now that it’s happening, I’m thrilled,” he says. He has been instrumental in getting the word out to his chef friends.
Salgado is inspired by the sustainability of the business. “One oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. They are a very integral part of the ecosystem.” He also participates in a program that returns oyster shells to the beds, instead of the landfill.
Orlando restaurateur Jason Chin, owner of Osprey Tavern, Seito Sushi and Reyes Mezcaleria, and a self-described oyster snob, used to be a Florida oyster naysayer. In his experience, oysters from warm Southern waters were muddy and bland, and he had no use for them on any of his menus. Until he met a Florida-farmed oyster in a Georgia restaurant. “I was skeptical,” he says, but became a passionate supporter of the local delicacies after downing a Salty Bird from Panacea. “That one surprised me,” he says. “I was dumbstruck and humbled. It started my quest to find similar oysters for my restaurants.”
Chin has a dream: “I have a daydream of opening an oyster bar, offering Florida oysters and some from further afield.” He wouldn’t say when, but offered that it may be “sooner than I think.”
Gene Richter, owner of Lee & Ricks, granddaddy of all Orlando oyster bars, which celebrated its 69th anniversary in October, is not using farmed oysters—yet. Richter said the farms cannot provide him with the several hundred bushels his shuckers go through weekly. But he, like Chin, is looking to the future, citing the increasing difficulty of finding the traditional wild harvest he’s served for nearly seven decades. “If they can supply me with the numbers I need, I’d love to use them,” he said recently.
Where To Find Them
The Baker’s Table, 4154 S. Atlantic Ave., New Smyrna Beach
Dexter’s New Standard, 1035 N. Orlando Ave., Winter Park
Dovecote, 390 N. Orange Ave., Orlando
The Local Pearl Oyster Shoppe, 124 Canal St., New Smyrna Beach
Luke’s Kitchen and Bar, 640 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland
Ocean’s Seafood Market, 601 E. 3rd Ave., New Smyrna Beach
Off the Hook, 747 E. 3rd Ave., New Smyrna Beach
Osprey Tavern, 4899 New Broad St., Orlando
Outriggers, 200 Boatyard St., New Smyrna Beach
Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen, 1234 N. Orange Ave., Winter Park
Reyes Mezcaleria, 821 N. Orange Ave., Orlando
Seito Sushi, 4898 New Broad St., Orlando
Wild Ocean Seafood Market, at Audubon Park Community Market, 1842 East Winter Park Road, Orlando. Pre-orders only, call 321-269-1116 before 2:30 p.m. Mondays, pick up between 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.