Wild versus Farm-Raised Oysters: Which are better?

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Photo: W&T Seafood

In recent years, the word “farmed” has been equated with “unflattering” in the seafood industry, as consumers struggle to determine the best choices for their tables. Farm-raised fish are pumped full of antibiotics and other chemicals, the headlines blare. Farmed fish are fed ground fishmeal, which further depletes the ocean’s seafood stocks. Parasites and diseases run rampant at densely packed fish farms. These charges are certainly true of some fish (see this National Geographic article on farmed salmon and sea lice), however there is one ringing counterexample to the argument that farmed seafood is always bad: oysters. So, what makes cultured oysters so much more environmentally friendly and are they truly better than their wild cousins?

There are some major distinctions between the aquaculture of fish versus raising oysters. Unlike fish, oysters don’t need to be fed, and thus do not further deplete wild seafood stocks. Instead, oysters act like a sponge, absorbing and filtering minerals and nutrients from the water around them, no additional help needed. Oysters do not generate waste or pollute the water, even in densely packed beds. On the contrary, they remove nitrogen from the water and improve water clarity, which benefits other aquatic plants and wildlife. In general, they only grow and flourish in clean conditions, so farmers don’t use added chemicals in production and they have strong incentives to protect the regional watershed.

Wild oysters provide all these benefits too, but pollution of coastal waters means you must be very cautious of the oyster’s harvest location. Some wild oysters are harvested through dredging, which destroys seafloor habitats. Overall, it’s better to leave wild oysters to reproduce and build up oyster beds along our coasts, rather than depleting those populations. For these reasons, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch rates farmed oysters “green,” but wild oysters “yellow.”

More importantly for discerning palates, some might say farmed oysters taste better. Wild oysters that grow to adult size have certainly beat the odds (only about one in a million eggs survive), however they have generally led a life of hardship, struggling to reach algae and nutrients from the muddy seafloor bottom. Farmed oysters, on the other hand, have been stuffed with a steady stream of food since birth, bask in temperature controlled conditions without large fluctuations, and have doting farmers who ensure that they grow strong, beautiful shells. They are bred to grow quickly and are harvested when they are at their peak flavor.

No wonder 95% of the oysters we eat are farm-raised; they’re both more environmentally sustainable and tastier to boot!

At W&T Seafood, we carry farm-raised oysters as a general rule, for the philosophical reasons outlined above. The only exception is the Belon oyster, which is found in wild beds in the Damariscotta River in Maine, one of the only established and self-sustaining oyster populations in the world. However, even these oysters are not native to the area; they were originally planted in the 1950s by scientists who were interest in culturing this European species on the other side of the pond. Some of the oysters were accidentally released into the wild, and they have since settled and are thriving in Maine.

So, the next time someone asks you whether you prefer farmed or wild seafood, you can proudly announce, “I’ll take farmed oysters any day!”

5 Comments

  1. We do carry a few wild oysters at the restaurant where I work, when we can get them. They’re more often than not a shucker’s nightmare, but I’ve had some really quality ones, such as the Marion from Massachusetts. There’s some gamey, funky, mushroomy flavor and smell they have to them that is quite unique (perhaps the product of Cape Cod Canal…eeee). I think pretty much everywhere south of the Carolinas are mostly wild too, no. But I will certainly take a nice, manicured aquacultured oyster any day, both ethically and flavor wise. Thanks for the good read.

    Posted by The SF Oysternerd
  2. Hope you stand strong for truth in labeling — naturally reproducing, native, unpatented oysters are the only healthful choice for growers, consumers and the environment. Educate yourself and your web of followers about the dead-end risks of genetically engineered triploid and tetraploid shellfish. As growers become seduced into using patented broodstock/larvae/seed/sperm, they are trapped into the same cycle of illusion/dependence on year-round industrialized production and deceptive propaganda that crop farmers face against Monsanto’s GMOs. Shellfish are luxury food items — their marketing should be at least as clean as their water — high-end consumers demand quality and honesty — they will not remain ignorant for long.

    Posted by Victoria Hanson
  3. W&T and Victoria,
    This is such an insightful and wonderfully well-written article about some major and unique differences between farmed and wild caught oysters. We appreciate you sharing your knowledge and passion for seafood!

    Pacific American Fish Co.
    http://www.pafco.net
    http://www.twitter.com/PAFCO

    Posted by Ashlee Chu
  4. I recently ate some Louisiana farm raised Oysters on the Half Shell at Landry’s in Kemah, Tx and they were not good at all!! VERY bland tasting!

    Posted by Elaine Snowden
  5. I live in Conn. When can I get beardless, saltwater, fat, full Mussels?

    Posted by James Mitchell

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