I find oyster farming fascinating. No two farms are the same, and the flavors differ depending on several location-related factors. One size does not fit all. If you are an oyster lover, you probably have your favorites based on where they came from. 

So many factors go into growing an oyster that can be sold commercially. There are permits, leases, handling through the growing season, sorting, and processing while adhering to strict health department regulations to ensure safety. But as all farmers of any kind can attest, at the end of the day, a successful crop depends on the weather. Oyster farming is no different.

I caught up with Anthony Ricciardone, who owns and operates Admiral Shellfish Company in Ft. Morgan with partner, Chris Head. Theirs is one of only two oyster farms in Baldwin County and as a result of the location, is one of the best raw oysters I’ve ever tasted. 

Anthony and Chris, working independently from one another, decided on the same location to establish an oyster farm from over 50 miles of shoreline surrounding Mobile Bay. Anthony tells me it was a combination of things that led him and Chris here without knowing each other. Salinity from just around the entrance from the Gulf into Mobile Bay was ideal, and the water quality and depth were perfect to raise succulent oysters as well as the sandy bottom and strong energy from the open expanse of Mobile Bay.

Abbuting State Historic Land where Fort Morgan and the Dauphin Island Ferry are located, the property is but a narrow spit of land. Access is limited and the shoreline has equipment including mesh bags that house the oysters through the growth process, a sorter to separate oysters into sizes, either ready for market or back into the water for maturing, steel rods that can stake the pontoons that keep the oysters in place. It’s all very labor intensive.

Anthony tells me Chris had already purchased the property when he had contacted him with an offer to buy. Anthony had researched the best waters to grow oysters in Alabama based on salinity data and proximity to the Gulf. Farming further up the Bay on some available land had been producing oysters, but not of the quality that would ever get you into a James Beard restaurant. 

Location is everything. The conversation went something like this: “It’s not for sale,” Chris told him as he had already concluded the same thing. “I want to purchase the property to start an oyster farm on Fort Morgan,” Anthony told him. “So do I,” said Chris. At an impasse, Anthony said, “Why don’t we partner up,” and Admiral Shellfish was born.

It took 7 years to get to where they are today. Three years of permitting and approval through the Corp of Engineers, Coast Guard, State Lands, Alabama Marine Resources Department, and Alabama Department of Public Health, and the last four years growing and harvesting commercially sold oysters. 

Anthony explained that each new crop is touched every month or so and that crops must overlap so there is a sustainable harvest of oysters year-round for sale to restaurants. Oysters harvested by Admiral Shellfish are delivered to one of two primary processors that supply other outlets. Bon Secour Fisheries, Inc. and Crimson Bay Oyster Seafood can supply restaurants, distributors, and the public. 

“When we harvest an oyster from the water, it must be tagged and refrigerated within certain timetables depending on the month before it gets to the processor. The Alabama Department of Public Health has rigorous timetables to ensure they are safe for consumption, especially in warmer months so everyone can have confidence that Alabama has just as much oversight as any other coast in the country.” 

Anthony explains that this part of Mobile Bay was attractive for several reasons. The salinity from fresh Gulf water ebbing and flowing with each tide gives Admiral Shellfish a distinctive salty flavor. It is also one of the widest areas of the Bay with Dauphin Island and Bayou La Batre to the West, Bon Secour, and the Eastern Shore to the North. This creates strong wave action which tumbles the oysters naturally, giving Admiral Shellfish oysters a deep, meaty cup.

“The idea is to have a perfect-sized oyster with plenty of meat and flavor without being too big. Oysters naturally want to grow more linear where the filter membrane meets. The greater wave action tells the oyster to put its energy into growing deeper, not longer. The result is a natural deep cup. It’s what we are known for.”

Anthony tells me that they purchase their oyster spat from a nursery, so they do grow their oysters from “seed” but do not spawn their own. They work closely with a few local nurseries who get the spat big enough to endure the farm’s conditions.  Auburn University Shellfish Lab and the University of Southern Mississippi, and others work to refine the core process and test new ideas. 

Oyster farming is the one crop that gives back to the environment more than it takes. No resources are used up and oysters provide a benefit as they filter and clean water. Some of the oysters even breed and add to natural stocks. And they are delicious! Wild-caught oysters have been on a steady decline for decades and it’s great that farm-raised oysters are no different than the oysters that have been harvested from these waters for centuries, only better.

“These oysters are individual animals, not clones of the same plant like monoculture. Just like all animals, each oyster grows at a different rate. To use easy numbers, if we plant 100 oysters in a small mesh bag, we begin sorting and replacing them in different-sized mesh bags every two weeks as they grow. We may harvest the first 10 oysters (10%) in six months for the market. We then harvest about 15 (15%) every month thereafter until the crop is complete.”

He goes on to say that if they plant 200,000 (they are tiny) oysters in just a couple of the many floating cages that make up the farm, by the time they reach market size, they would cover an acre of water surface. He tells me that while oysters are not as engineered as plant crops, a lot of factors will go into the end result.

“We are totally dependent on the weather just like any farmer. Too much freshwater affects the oyster. You can see from looking at an oyster shell the periods where it grew rapidly and the period when it had retracted growth. That’s all a reflection of weather conditions; cold, salty, fresh, whatever.” 

The weather this Spring has been good for an outstanding crop. We left the farm and headed up the road to Jesse’s on the Bay to sample some Admiral Shellfish oysters on the half shell. They were outstanding! Anthony tells me their goal is to produce the best oysters available to sell to select restaurants. They have even created a special oyster with Jesse’s called the King Ransom.

Anthony tells me he and Chris love oyster farming. They get to use their science education backgrounds and work closely with researchers, and other farms to improve and continue learning the trade. “There are more private companies that are getting into the oyster hatchery side of the business. New equipment is being developed and licensed, and we are always on the lookout for better ways to grow and harvest our oysters."

In the meantime, I’ve found my new favorite delicacy. Join us for the Scenic 98 Coastal Summer Splash Wine Dinners where Admiral Shellfish will offer a taste of their delectable Bivalvia fresh from the waters of Mobile Bay!

May 15, 2024
People & Business Profiles

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