Story by Jessica Deese and photos by Kate Reali
I was a late bloomer in joining the shellfish fan club. As a child, my aversion was extreme. On one occasion, I stubbornly sat at the dinner table an entire afternoon staring down the plate of shrimp my parents lovingly prepared while my father took my more agreeable siblings to the pool as a reward for their willingness to eat said crustaceans. By the end of the day, my mother was in tears and I was excused, having won the battle of the day. A few years later, the creepy shrimp scene in Beetlejuice strengthened my steely resolve and self-righteousness. It was confirmed. Not only were they gross, apparently, they were also dangerous.
My prejudice was extended to shrimp’s cousin, the oyster. Let’s be honest. Oysters score low on the scale of visual appeal, making them a hard sell for picky eaters. I was not about to give these slimy blobs a chance.
I am happy to say that I have evolved in my eating habits, but somewhat embarrassed to admit how long it took. A few years ago, on a night out with my husband, he ordered an appetizer of oysters. The waiter set before me the pot of petite plumps cooked in a deep bath of melted butter, surrounded by slices of French bread for dipping. What had unsuccessfully tempted me in my libertine carb-a-holic youth was simply irresistible to my bread-rationed forty (something) self. In that moment, these two key ingredients opened a portal into a new dimension and for the first time, the oysters before me looked delicious. And they were.
My husband’s order helped me appreciate the culinary delights of my new favorite seafood. But it’s his deep love of the bay and personal dream of wanting to grow oysters that helped me delight in these creatures from an entirely new standpoint. They are delicious. But they are so much more than just that.
Turns out, they are a foundational building block for a healthy coastal ecosystem. Having grown up in a neighborhood in Montrose with bay access, my husband spent many hours in the water fishing, playing, and boating. Back then, the water was clear and sea grass beds dotted the shoreline, alive with crab, shrimp, and fish. These losses are a direct result of the destruction of our oyster reefs. One oyster can filter more than fifty gallons of water in a day. In addition to cleaner water, oyster reefs help anchor the muddy sediments to the bottom of the bay, where they belong. The absence of mud gives delicate grasses the chance to grow along shore, which in turn protect against erosion. That, and the fishing is better!
You may not be a native that is nostalgic for these halcyon days. Even though you might not remember it, I know you can imagine it, and, I imagine, you would probably prefer it.So here’s what we need to do:
Eat more Oysters
Long aware of the alarming oyster reef decline in the bay, the Alabama Coastal Foundation’s (ACF) executive director, Mark Berte, was quick to respond when the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced a grant opportunity in late 2015 that jumpstarted what is now the Alabama Oyster Shell Recycling Program. Up to this point, restaurants serving oysters on the half shell were paying waste companies to haul their shells away to landfills. The state was then spending millions of dollars purchasing shells to replenish the reefs. Thanks to ACF’s efforts in winning the grant and establishing the recycling program, participating restaurants place their shells in specially marked containers that are picked up, taken to a facility in Gulf Shores where they are cured for six months, and then deposited back into Alabama waters.
One of the first restaurants to sign on was the Original Oyster House on the Causeway. Co-founder David Dekle is pretty adept at stating the obvious: “Everybody loves oysters. Us especially; it’s our brand! If we don’t protect them, who will?” The entire staff is on board with the education and recycling efforts. Marketing Director Cecilia Mace even redesigned their children’s menu to help educate the littlest patrons on the importance of oysters and the efforts of the program. It’s a team approach that hopefully will help transfer the knowledge and generate enduring change outside the restaurant doors.
There are now sixteen restaurants in Mobile and Baldwin counties that recycle their shells. You can visit the ACF website, joinacf.org, to see the complete list. If you don’t see your favorite half shell spot, speak up! Encourage them to join now.
According to P.J. Waters, director of the Mobile Bay Oyster Gardening Program, by eating a dozen oysters, “you directly contribute to more than one hundred new oysters going back into the bay,” which brings me to my next action item…
Take Up Oyster Gardening
You may not own waterfront property, but I bet you have a relative or friend that does. If not, chances are you will eventually. So keep reading! Since 2001, the Mobile Bay Oyster Gardening Program has helped waterfront homeowners directly engage in the restoration efforts of the oyster population. First, you have to determine if you live in an approved zone, which has something to do with the level of salt present in the water. Along the Eastern Shore, the zone begins sixteen lots north of Bailey Creek. Below the line, you are eligible. Above it, you aren’t. (Much to my husband’s chagrin, we are outside the boundary.)
Each spring, scientists at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab spawn baby oysters. These larvae are placed on a shell, harvested from the Alabama Oyster Recycling Program, and set. Once ready, these spats are bagged and distributed to the gardeners. With the help of program staff, the gardener spreads the spats between four baskets provided either in May or June. Once they are fully grown, by November or December, they are collected and distributed to protected, undisclosed locations.
My across-the-street neighbor, Esther Wilson, and her husband, John, have a home in Little Lagoon and are second-year gardeners. Her enthusiasm is palpable. “It is fascinating to watch the spat, which is
smaller than your fingernail, grow. … We call them our oyster babies at first, but by the end we can barely pick them up.”She drives down each week to tend to them, which takes about an hour. “This is a fun and very interesting project. We hope to always be a part of it.” She’s not alone in that sentiment. The program has a high retention rate and offers a strong sense of community among its members.
Director P. J. Waters grew up summering in Point Clear and remembers being regularly chastised by his mother for messing with the crab trap too often. But with these oyster baskets, “kids can pull them up and down one hundred times a day, and it’s actually helpful. … I get a kick out of seeing them get so excited.”
And this is where we can all pitch in. In teaching kids to love the bay and its bounty, they will grow up wanting to care for it too. Just like P.J., and my husband, and even late bloomers, like me.