Floats keep the cages suspended at the top, but beneath the water’s surface, they hold thousands of growing oysters. Floating in the water column, they largely are protected from predators.
PANAMA CITY BEACH — Put two oysters on a plate, and J. Michael Stewart can tell you which one was farm-raised and which one is wild.
“There’s a huge difference,” said Stewart, the owner of the restaurant J. Michael’s. “The farmed ones are consistently the same size and always good. The wild caught, there’s so much trash mixed in.”
In addition to the size, farm-raised oysters have a deeper cup, are easier to open, grow more quickly and don’t have any gonads, which some say can ruin the flavor of the oyster in the summer months.
“In the wild, the gonads can become 40 percent of the oyster’s body mass during spawning,” said Honor Allen, the national oyster shucking champion. Because the farm-raised oysters don’t breed, “they are consistently saltier, and in that circumstance, the farm-raised oyster will taste better.”
Stewart called them the “oyster of the future,” noting he sells them in the restaurant whenever possible.
But farming oysters is still a relatively new concept for this part of the country. Reports of oyster farming go back to Ancient Rome, but Florida didn’t allow entrepreneurs to start their own farms until 2014.
Johnnie Smith, the owner of West Bay Oyster Co., was one of the first in the state to put in his paperwork. He works primarily as businessman in Alabama now, but he grew up in Bay County, shrimping with his family to earn some money. Oyster farming, he said, brings him back to something he loves — the water.
“This is relaxing for me,” he said.
His operation in West Bay is relatively small, a few dozen cages bobbing at the surface of the water. Floats keep the cages suspended at the top, but beneath the water’s surface, they hold thousands of growing oysters. Some are smaller than the fingernail of your littlest finger; others are ready to go to market.
The cages are “very labor intensive,” Smith said. Every weekend, he drives from Alabama and is out on the water by the time dawn breaks to scrape growth off the outside of the cages before the sun becomes too hot and to sort the oysters, discarding ones that died and putting like sizes with like sizes.
Floating in the water column, his oysters largely are protected from the predators that plague wild oysters — blue crabs, stone crabs and oyster drills — but there are some things from which they can’t be protected, like fresh water.
“Too much freshwater for too long, and you lose everything,” said Smith, who dealt with that very issue after a tropical storm last year.
Still, he said, farming is far easier than tonging for oysters, an age-old practice still done in Apalachicola, where oystermen scrape the bottom to pull up blocks of oysters that then need to be chipped apart.
“I know enough about tonging to know that I don’t want to do that,” said Smith, who used to hear stories about the craft while working as a commercial scalloper.
Now in his third year farming, Smith said he’s finally at the point where he’s about to turn a profit. Startup costs are high, he said, noting he had a family friend, Justin Braden, act as a partner. And even when he does start making money, he still says “most guys doing this” keep their day jobs.
Smith views farmed oysters as “a part of the future.” He doesn’t believe tonging will be replaced, but he hopes farming takes some pressure off the wild stocks. Apalachicola, he said, where the stock collapsed amid the state’s “water wars” with Georgia and overfishing, is an example of a place that could benefit.
Joseph “Smokey” Parrish, a Franklin County commissioner and seafood seller, said nearby oyster farming — which mostly happens east of the mouth of the Apalachicola River — will help to “supplement” the area’s oyster industry but won’t ever replace it.
The farms “are not going to be able to meet the supply,” he said. “They’ll never be able to match the public bars when everything is right.”
Besides, he said, the water makes the taste, and those being grown in nearby Alligator Harbor never will have the same flavor as a true Apalachicola oyster.
In total, the Florida Department of Agriculture counts 13 submerged land aquaculture leases and 12 submerged in perpetuity leases between Pensacola and the Apalachicola River, farms that are predominantly growing oysters and hard shell clams. They could not break the data down further.
People like Smith and Stewart expect to see farm-raised oysters become more and more common.
“There are some people who say they will never try a farm-raised oyster,” said Stewart, who buys all of Smith’s oysters. “But if they do, they are going to like it. I’m going against the wind right now, but I think it will surprise a lot of people how good they are.”