Historically speaking, Alabama is the largest oyster processor in the U.S. But we don’t just grow ‘em and shuck ‘em—we eat ‘em every chance we get, whether raw or cooked up any number of ways.
The old idiom tells us that oysters are best in any month with the letter “r,” but Alabama oysters are fresh, delicious, and can be enjoyed year round.
Our official season ended on Friday, March 29, and the overall impression was a positive one. Chris Blankenship, Director of Alabama Marine Resources and program administrator for the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission, believes many factors came together to make this oyster season successful. Hurricanes, drought, and predators contributed to reef damage dating back to 2008, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill made matters worse in 2010.
But if this year’s numbers are any indication, Alabama’s oysters have made a tremendous comeback and are being produced in larger quantities.
“The Alabama oyster season this year has been very successful after several very subpar years,” said Blankenship. “It is good to see the men and women of Alabama harvesting oysters again at a good rate.”
Those men and women have seen the same positive signs in Alabama’s oyster processing industry this season.
Harry Harris, long-time oyster tonger and owner of Harry’s Oysters, attributes the successful season to a longer harvesting schedule and more opportunities in terms of location.
“It took more time to make it better than last year,” Harris said. “We only worked 31 days last year. This year we got to work longer, and we got to work places that weren’t open in a long time.”
One of those places, as Blankenship pointed out, is in mid-Mobile Bay. One area of the Bay in particular had been closed for over 30 years before the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) opened it up for commercial harvesting this season.
The Alabama Marine Resources Division will continue to work with the ADPH in the coming years to evaluate potential areas for harvesting expansion.
More time and more ground to cover means a higher volume of oysters for Alabama. And that higher volume coupled with the quality of Alabama oysters means bigger profits for the men and women in the Alabama Gulf Seafood industry.
“The quality and demand for Alabama oysters coupled with lower supply from other Gulf states led to the harvesters being paid over $.50 a pound in late 2012,” said Blankenship. “This is the highest price I can ever remember them receiving. This is good for the economy of South Alabama and has helped reestablish the quality and reputation of Alabama oysters.”
That reputation is one that stretches throughout the country. Our commitment to the harvesting and processing of oysters has helped put Alabama Gulf Seafood on the map.
But as David Stalcup of Coast Seafood points out, it all goes back to one prime factor: the taste.
“Well, it’s really the seafood of the 21st century,” Stalcup said. “So many shrimp are imported—from China, Mexico, Ecuador. And West Coast oysters have a chalky, metallic taste. But the Gulf oyster’s got a real sweet taste, and some of the Alabama oysters are the best-tasting in the country. In the world.”
It’s a good thing Southerners are such oyster lovers; if nature cooperates, the Alabama oyster industry won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
Blankenship points to recent rainfall and freshwater inflows as a positive sign. The right amount of freshwater is important for reducing the population of the oyster drill, a predatory sea snail that creates serious problems for Alabama’s oyster reefs.
“I think it’ll be better next year,” Stalcup echoed. “I think they’re doing it right.”
Fewer oyster drills, extended harvesting areas, and longer harvesting seasons all point to a bright future for Alabama Gulf Seafood and oyster lovers everywhere.
And if you find yourself craving oysters during the warmer months, don’t worry—they’re always on the menu in Alabama.
“Just because we have closed the public reefs for the season does not mean that oysters are not available,” Blankenship added. “Alabama oyster processors are still shucking oysters from private reefs or other Gulf states and will have plenty of quarts, gallons and half shell oysters for your spring and summer enjoyment.”