12.19.2012

Offshore Innovation: How Point aux Pins Highlights the Alabama Oyster

It was Shakespeare who first penned it.

“The world’s mine oyster / Which I with sword will open”—a phrase that has come to signify endless opportunity.

For Dr. Bill Walton, the oyster is his oyster.

Walton, assistant professor and marine fisheries extension specialist at Auburn University, is a pioneer of sorts when it comes to the oyster industry. Walton is advising and working with independent oyster farmers to implement an off-bottom farming technique that yields some of the finest premium oysters on the Gulf Coast.

Walton’s most successful oversight is the Point aux Pins oyster farm in Grand Bay, owned and operated by Steve and Dema Crockett. With Walton’s help, the Crocketts have crafted a premier oyster that’s getting a lot of attention. And thanks to Bon Secour Fisheries in Bon Secour and Crimson Bay Seafood and Johnson Sea Products in Bayou La Batre, Point aux Pins oysters can be found on restaurant menus throughout the state.

But for Walton and the Crocketts, success didn’t happen overnight.

Walton, a native of New Jersey, began independently farming oysters in Cape Cod after finishing his PhD at the University of Maryland and working related jobs for several years. “For us, it was a labor of love,” said Walton, who tended the farm with his wife, Beth. “We’d work the farm on the weekends or on very early or late low tides.”

The Waltons grew Bee’s River oysters, which they would sell to restaurants in Boston and Cape Cod. But Walton spent his work week as the Marine Fisheries & Aquaculture Specialist for Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and Woods Hole Sea Grant, where he provided academic expertise and applied research to industry representatives, resource managers and the general public.

So when it came time to find a more suitable home for his growing family, Walton began looking for a new job. That’s when the Gulf Coast began calling his name.

“With two young boys, Beth and I were having a hard time finding a home that we could afford,” Walton said. “I saw an advertisement for a position with Auburn University Department of Fisheries & Allied Aquacultures—and the work looked a lot like the work I loved.”

It did not take much convincing for the Waltons. “I interviewed, and my wife and I fell in love with the Gulf Coast,” said Walton, who began working in January of 2009 at the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory on Dauphin Island.

But these days, Walton has become rather famous for his passion project: getting a new “blue green” industry started in Alabama’s coastal communities, where oyster farmers are cultivating the highest quality oysters imaginable such as those grown at the Point aux Pins farm. And their particular off-bottom method, one that Walton and the Crocketts adopted from Australian oyster farmers, has been gaining plenty of attention from the Alabama Gulf Seafood community.

The idea behind the off-bottom method is a simple one: juvenile oysters (provided by the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory) are loaded into wire baskets that remain underwater yet suspended above the ocean floor. This system raises the oysters above the water about once a week, which allows the air and sun to kill undesirable organisms like barnacles and seaweed that can affect the growth of the oysters.

Of course, this technique has its drawbacks, the biggest being a lower quantity when compared to commercial oyster fisheries. “This method of oyster farming doesn’t produce the quantities of oysters that nature can,” said Walton. “Oyster farming won’t compete with our local oyster fishery, where the vast majority of those oysters are sold by the sack.”

It is also not the least expensive method of cultivation for those who are new to the world of oyster farming. “There are certainly significant start-up costs,” said Walton. “Someone doing this has to be prepared to make an investment.”

But the benefits are many. Off-bottom oyster farming allows the oysters to grow faster with a higher chance of survival. In addition, without the threat of bio-fouling, the oysters grow and excel in a way that nature simply would not allow.

And the flavor? Well, you have to taste them to believe it. Point aux Pins oysters are sold live and in the shell for a premium price to high-end restaurants and oyster bars, and they’re popping up on menus like Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, True in Montgomery, and Compleat Angler along the Alabama coastline.

But Point aux Pins oysters are not just another entry into the premium oyster market—as Walton notes, the Crocketts are building a brand.

Thanks to a mixture of salts, nutrients and phytoplankton (that grow naturally in the area), oysters take on the flavor of the seas where they are grown. This means that oysters grown in different regions have their own unique taste. When grapes take on the flavor of the earth, this event is called “terroir”—so oysters experience what Walton calls “merroir.”

“Branding is simply taking the idea of ‘merroir’ and formalizing it,” said Walton. “Each Gulf oyster, like each East Coast oyster, has its own taste. Oyster farms tend to provide a more consistently flavored product, since they are all raised in the same area.”

With this in mind, the future for the Gulf oyster industry is bright.

“We’ve seen an oyster renaissance in the U.S.,” said Walton. “Oyster bars in Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas and so on have embraced the idea of having oyster ‘menus,’ where they might offer over a dozen appellations. We’re seeing restaurants and raw bars start to embrace this idea of branded oysters. This is an opportunity for the Alabama oyster industry to add our own ‘product.’”

That’s why he is working to secure an oyster farming enterprise zone in Portersville Bay. There, Walton and his associates, along with help from Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant and funding from National Sea Grant, will train individuals who are interested in starting up their own oyster farms and continuing to promote and brand premium oysters.

“In Alabama,” said Walton, “I can see a day where we have Alabama oysters from Point aux Pins, Portersville Bay, Dauphin Island and Bon Secour Bay—each a distinct brand. How great would it be to go into an oyster bar and order three of each?”

At the end of the day, that’s what drives Walton and his teammates—helping to improve both the Alabama Gulf Seafood industry and the state’s economy as a whole. And because Alabama is historically the #1 processor of oysters in the U.S., this new oyster farming technique will only increase the economic impact of an industry that already accounts for hundreds of millions of dollars per year in Alabama.

“I really enjoy working on questions that matter to people who make their living on the water,” Walton said. “You can call it applied science, but I just consider it ‘putting science to work.’”