Oyster farming is the good kind aquaculture

by FoodPrint

Published: 4/02/24, Last updated: 4/02/24

Farmed fish and shellfish — usually presented as very sustainable protein options — represent an increasing percentage of the seafood we eat. But as we have detailed in our Foodprint of Farmed Seafood” report, and our podcast episodes on both shrimp and salmon, lots of aquaculture is problematic, environmentally and otherwise. The possible exception to this: the farming of bivalves, like scallops, clams, mussels and oysters.

When we visited Hog Island Oyster Co. for the most recent episode of our podcast, “What You’re Eating,” tour guide Marlon McLaughlin described oyster farming this way: “I actually think that ‘farming’ is a little bit of a misnomer. It’s really more like oyster ranching, right? We’re really just leasing access to that phytoplankton for those oysters to graze upon. We’re not adding any food or fertilizer. We’re grazing.”

While large-scale finfish and shrimp farms require tons of inputs — mostly food, but also antibiotics to address the diseases that spread rapidly in overcrowded pens — smaller oyster operations, the norm in the U.S. for this kind of aquaculture, can have the opposite environmental effect. Oysters are filter feeders, sucking in water, taking in whatever microorganisms they need and then spitting the rest back out. Through this process, they’re feeding themselves while also cleaning up the very water they sit in. Add to this their briny deliciousness and their pop culture status as a hot girl snack of recent summers, and you’ll find plenty of reason to get excited about oysters.

Want to know what it looks like to grow these mysterious creatures responsibly? Or how an oyster, whether a Hama Hama or a Wellfleet, is categorized and named? Looking for guidance on ordering oysters to shuck and eat at home and how much to worry about disease-causing bacteria, like Vibrio, that you have heard about in the news? We’ve got answers from oyster expert Rowan Jacobsen, marine scientist Christopher Gobler and the crew at Northern California’s Hog Island Oyster Co.


Top photo courtesy of Jerusha Klemperer for FoodPrint. 

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