#1/3: Oysters in the US - trends and issues
The key trends affecting the oyster market in the United States are the use of potato starch to grow oysters, front door delivery system to ensure the freshness of oysters, oyster shell recycling, and diversifying oyster consumption. Challenges in the market include climate change, too much rain, plastic pollution, and issues with bacterial infection.
1. Potato Starch for growth
The Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program (CHNEP) has developed a new method of attracting oysters that does not use plastic bags for their oyster beds, but potatoes. Most oyster harvesters use plastic bags to make oyster beds because they are effective in filtering out fresh water. But this method has been proven to be a hazard to the environment. CHNEP, therefore, has developed the method of using potato starch to take the place of the plastic bags. This has become a big part of their oyster restoration project. According to Jennifer Hecker, the executive director of CHNEP, 3D potato starch netting will increase the growth rate of the oysters. Punta Gorda scientists revealed in May 2017, that 380,000 oysters settled in three of their sites that use potato starch netting.
2. Front door delivery
In order to preserve the fresh taste of oysters, reduce the safety risks, and eliminate the many health problems that are associated with commercial oyster distribution, shellfish harvesters like Real Oyster Cult, make front door deliveries of fresh oysters directly from the oyster farm. The present supply chain contains three to five different handlers/dealers who destroy the product due to prolonged time and exposure to warm temperatures. Oyster farmers are increasingly changing their distribution systems to provide easy access to their customers across the country by directly delivering oyster harvests from the farm to the market.
3. Shell Recycling
Oyster shells can be recycled by dumping them back into the ocean after consumption. The shells that are thrown back become homes for baby oysters. Each shell can house over 10 baby oysters. This method can protect the baby oysters during the most vulnerable stages of growth. Currently, recycled oyster shells are used to strengthen the oyster restoration in Chesapeake Bay tributaries, which is the largest restoration project in the United States. Wayne Witzke, working for Shell Recycling Alliance, collects oyster shells from 100-150 restaurants in a week, located in Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia. The shells are sent to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Oyster Hatchery located in Cambridge, where they are aged for over a year. They are then washed with high-pressure hoses and placed in outdoor setting tanks for baby oysters to attach themselves to the shells. According to the operations manager of Shell Recycling Alliance, Tom Price, the amount of shell recycled accounts for over one-third of the total demand of 100,000 bushels every year.
4. Oyster Consumption
The United States has numerous oyster bars that provide customers with variety menus, giving them a unique tasting experience. At 167 Raw, located in Charleston, South Carolina, customers have the opportunity to taste a wide “array of high-quality oysters”. When the customers are not sure of what to order, their chef makes the selection for them and offers them a diverse experience. Cocktail oysters and dollar oyster nights are also a rising trend in oyster bars. This enables oyster farmers to harvest their oysters faster rather than waiting until the oysters each complete market size.
There are many concerns that are affecting oyster businesses across the country today. Businesses that are technologically advanced with modern facilities are also having trouble dealing with the growing challenges like viruses, bacteria, poisonous algae, salinity fluctuations, increased water pollution with plastic, and warm temperatures, in growing oysters.
1. Too much rain
Oysters require about 10 to 15 parts of salt concentration per million to survive, but in recent years, due to the flooding of freshwater by rains, the concentration level of salt has reduced in certain oyster bed areas in the country to zero. Heavy downpours in areas like Galveston Bay, has caused a large setback in the oyster industry, leading to the production of oysters to decrease from 3.68 million pounds to over 1.57 million pounds during the period 2013 to 2016. Galveston Bay harvests about 80% of the total oysters in Texas, but due to freshwater flooding, the production has decreased to one-third of the total amount.
2. Climate Change
According to a report by Investigate West, the waters of the oceans are turning acidic due to climate change, creating major problems in the growth of oysters and other shellfish. Ocean acidification has reduced the rate of oyster larvae survival to three-quarters of the usual rate. This reduction of survival rate is a huge crisis for oyster growers including the largest shellfish producer in the United States — Taylor Shellfish. A study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found corrosive waters on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The scientists concluded that this was an extreme change in the water conditions which they didn’t expect to see “for another 50 to 100 years”. Acidic water is moving closer to the continental shelf disturbing shellfish and marine life on the nation’s shoreline.
3. Plastic pollution
Plastic pollution is a global issue. According to the Seattle Aquarium, people consuming oysters and other shellfish might be “ingesting up to 11,000 particles of microplastics” every year. With the current trend of consumption, the number could increase to as much as 780,000 microplastic particles every year by the end of the century. It was found that there is an estimated 150 million tons of plastic in the oceans today. The plastic, when broken down into smaller pieces are consumed by marine life like oysters and are then consumed by humans, which in turn causes numerous health problems including death.
4. Bacteria infection
Oyster harvesters and fisheries are on ‘high alert’ due to gastrointestinal illness and other problems that are caused by bacterial infection (Vibrio Parahaemolyticus — VP) in oysters. Bacteria growth in waters is caused not due to pollution but because of warmer temperatures. Bacterial infections have been affecting people in the oyster business for years. According to CDC, VP causes over 80,000 illnesses every year in the country, with over 50,000 of those cases due to contaminated food (which includes the consumption of oysters). The United States government has brought about plans to test and control the conditions of oyster harvests in the country to ensure the control of bacterial infections. The plans are put into motion during the ‘high-risk’ months from May to October of every year since it is during this time that there is a high risk of VP. The DMF (Division of Marine Fisheries) regulates oyster harvesters while the nation’s Public Health regulates the dealers who purchase from the harvesters.
To wrap up, we have identified four key trends and four challenges that are affecting the oyster market in the United States. The use of potato starch to grow oysters, ensuring freshness through front door delivery systems, and recycling oyster shells are some key trends in the market today. People are consuming oysters in diverse ways, with the most trending ways being dollar oysters, cocktail oysters, and oyster bars. Challenges that are currently affecting the oyster market include the pollution of plastic, flooding of rainwater, climate change, and bacteria infection.