PORT SULPHUR, La. (AP) — Anita Arguelles’ husband, Mike, convinced her they should get into the oyster business.
“He loves oysters,” she said. “He loves to talk about oysters. He loves to take them in the back of his truck in an ice cooler and go around and just open oysters up for people.”
The Arguelles founded French Hermit Oyster Co. in the waters south of Biloxi, Miss., where the oysters they grow in suspended bags have pretty shells and intense flavors. French Hermit harvested its first oysters last year. But this year, with restaurants closed or only selling takeout due to the coronavirus, business has been bad.
Off-bottom oyster farming has long been the norm on the east and west coasts. It produces oysters that are polished and pristine with a consistent taste of a single place. Only in the last decade have oyster farms come to the Gulf Coast, with Alabama and Florida leading the way followed by Louisiana. Mississippi began oyster farming last year, and Texas hopes to open its first farms in the fall.
Farmed oysters are raised to be eaten raw, savored with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon or a mignonette sauce. They sell for more than the oysters pulled from Gulf reefs. A single oyster from Murder Point in Alabama, Shelley Farms in Louisiana or Biloxi Butter Oysters in Mississippi can cost up to $3. Not many people, however, eat raw oysters at home or want to buy a dozen to go in a styrofoam box. The shutdown of restaurant dining rooms due to COVID-19 has shriveled oyster sales.
“The oystermen are saying either their sales have completely stopped or they might be selling 1% of what they normally do,” said Brian Callam, director of LSU’s Grand Isle Oyster Research Lab.
Off-bottom farmed oysters are grown in suspended bags with a wide mesh to let in nutrients. As the oysters get bigger and crowd the bags, the farmer has to regularly spread them out into more bags to give them room to grow. That work must continue even with no money coming in.
“We still have to do all the stuff anyway,” said Boris Guerrero, who has raised Southern Belle oysters with his family since 2013 in the waters off Grand Isle, La.
Connoisseurs of oysters prefer not to slurp any with a shell longer than three inches. An oyster that grows too big in these months when raw bars are shuttered will lose much of its value.
Some oyster farmers have turned to selling directly to consumers, the same strategy used by produce farmers and shrimpers during the coronavirus crisis. Restaurants like Automatic Seafood in Birmingham, Al., or Kimball House in Atlanta have been selling to-go bags of 50 oysters to support the farmers.
“I don’t think we’re saving any orphanages or anything, but we’re still able to move 2000 or 3000 oysters a week,” said Kimball House partner Bryan Rackley. “I know that they’re happy to be moving stuff out.”
A few farmers are selling their oysters to processors to be shucked and sold for cooking. Shucking houses, however, pay far less for oysters.
“I think people are open to almost anything. Everybody knows they’re not going to be making a ton of money on stuff, but what can they do in order to bring in some bucks,” said Beth Walton of Oyster South, which promotes oyster farming in the region.
Bill Walton, director of Auburn University’s Shellfish Lab, has played a crucial role in bringing off-bottom oyster farming to the South. (Walton is married to Beth Walton of Oyster South). He worries that restaurants might take months to get back to how they were before the coronavirus crisis. If that happens, oyster farming in the Gulf South could be reshaped.
“We may see some consolidation of farmers. The same way that if we get a hurricane, somebody has to make that decision of do I soldier on or is this too much,” he said.
Arguelles and her husband still have day jobs, although one day they hope to raise oysters full time. Neither of the two years they’ve been in the business have been easy.
Last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carré spillway upriver of New Orleans for four months. That lowered the dangerously high Mississippi River, swollen from Midwest floods. The spillway’s opening, the longest since it was built in 1931, also released fresh water into the Mississippi Sound, killing oysters that need brackish water. In a single week, the Arguelles lost every one of their oysters.