In today’s world, there seems to be a perception that farm-raised seafood is inferior to wild-caught seafood. The media and many interest groups have raised concerns about aquaculture, typically citing its environmental impact and risks to consumer health, but this generalization is not true for all kinds of seafood aquaculture, especially not oysters. Oyster aquaculture is extremely different from finfish aquaculture. Farmed oysters are a very sustainable choice and equally lovely compared to their wild counterparts. Don’t believe us? We'll break it down for you:
What’s cool about oyster aquaculture is that the oysters are farmed in their natural habitat. Farmed oysters do not need to be fed – they eat the same food as wild oysters from algae-rich tides and waters. They are not caged like finfish to be isolated from their environment. Instead, oyster farmers use oyster cages to protect the oysters from predators and to prevent them from being smothered by silt on the ocean bottom. There are also many oyster farmers who use a bottom-plant technique, which allows the oysters to grow on the ocean floor just like a wild oyster.
It’s unfortunate that many of our wild oyster fisheries have been overfished or destroyed, but now there are regulations and a movement to restore them back. With the growth of oyster aquaculture, farmed oysters have greatly reduced the need to rely on wild oysters. This has allowed time for wild oysters to recover and repopulate beds that were once decimated many years ago.
Many aquaculture critics point to aquaculture’s negative impacts on the environment. They argue that the inputs and outputs of aquaculture will pollute our oceans. When it comes to oysters, though, they actually do a lot of good for their immediate ecosystem!
Oysters have the ability to filter up to a gallon of water an hour, and in doing so, they control phytoplankton growth. This “top-down” population control prevents algae blooms that can lead to deteriorating water quality, which hurts aquatic vegetation. The environmental study on the highly debated Drakes Bay Oyster Farm concluded that the “oysters have the potential to benefit eelgrass because their filtering activity improves local water clarity (and hence light penetration) and because they release biodeposits and ammonium (plant nutrients).”*
There have been concerns that dense populations of shellfish will lead to shellfish waste “[overwhelming] the capability of sediments to maintain nitrification processes,”** but this concern is inapplicable because most areas have been depleted of their native oyster populations. Farmed oysters are now serving the same functions in the water column to support their immediate ecosystems as native oysters once did.
Farmed oysters benefit from having oyster growers look after them. They get fed well, they get cleaned, they’re protected... they really do live the high life for an oyster. And as such, happy oysters grow into beautiful oysters that are plump and display worthy. Wild oysters are beautiful, too, but their shape or hinges may be less consistent. Consistency can be crucial because if you’re an oyster shucker at a raw bar shucking hundreds of oysters a day, you want oysters with great shuckability – oysters with easy-to-find hinges and substantial cups. You can’t control the growth of wild oysters, so you just have to hope the harvester did a good job culling. Depending on an oyster grower’s methods, farmed oysters can rival many wild oysters in look and taste.
Farmed oyster or wild oyster, each has their respective positives and negatives, but one is not better than the other. It really is just preference. However, if someone tells you that they don’t eat or serve farmed oysters, then put it in to perspective for them because 95% of oysters are farmed these days. We’ve encountered many beautiful farmed oysters (including our own), and we’d be lying if we didn’t think they were the best. So the next time a fellow seafood lover, customer, or friend poo poos a farmed oyster, educate them and explain to them why choosing a farmed oyster is doing a lot of good.
*Shellfish Mariculture in Drakes Estero, Point Reyes National Seashore, California by the National Research Council
**Environmental Effects of Shellfish Aquaculture in the Northeast by Michael A. Rice of URI