Mosquito Lagoon Paper Shell Oyster
Oak Hill oyster season short but sweet
By MARK I. JOHNSON
OAK HILL, Fla. — With a late-fall sun overhead and a brisk breeze chopping the surface of the Mosquito Lagoon, longtime commercial fisherman and oysterman Tom Hall picks through a pile of oyster shells.
Every few handfuls, he mines a living jewel – a Mosquito Lagoon oyster – that he tosses into the basket floating along behind him.
“There is not much here,” the 35-year-old Oak Hill resident said before heading back to the boat.
From mid- to late October to April, Hall can be found wading through the waters of the lagoon, selecting only the best of what some seafood lovers consider the best-tasting oyster available – the Mosquito Lagoon paper shell.
As temperatures cool, oystering throughout the state picks up as the bottom-dwelling bivalves are at their plumpest and tastiest, said Susan Collins-Cook and her partner, Jimmy Rayburn of the Oak Hill Seafood Co-op.
“They are better now,” Rayburn said, “fatter and juicier.”
Unfortunately, while conditions such as water quality and salinity are superior for taste, the species of shellfish harvested wild from the lagoon can be more trouble than they are worth financially, said local processors. That is particularly true when compared to farm-raised oysters found in Florida’s prime oystering region – the Apalachicola Bay.
There, 90 percent of Florida’s oysters are harvested each year in Franklin County, one of the most productive, pristine estuaries in the country, according to Martin May, a Florida Department of Agriculture and business-services spokesman.
Oysters grow more quickly and can reach market size in less than two years in the warm, nutrient-rich waters of the bay.
Local oysters are “ugly,” said Collins-Cook of her hometown variety. As wild-growing shellfish, the species found in local waters don’t have the visual appeal of their Gulf counterparts; thus, they may not look as good to a consumer when presented on a tray of ice in a restaurant.
She and others believe if oyster-farming operations could be established in the region, harvesters could avoid some of the difficulties – clumped-together shells or inconsistent sizes – that might displease customers.
Southeast Volusia’s only licensed “shell stock” facility, Cedar Creek Shellfish in Bethune Beach, limits its intake of wild oysters for this exact reason.
Owner Mike Sullivan said considering the work and monetary return on investment oysters provide when put next to his clam-farming operation, there is no comparison. The bucks are in clams.
“My business is not landing wild products. My business is aquaculture product,” said Sullivan.
That does not mean he is anti-oyster. Like many, Sullivan believes when it comes to taste, the Mosquito Lagoon variety is the best. But, when it costs him 50 cents for a pound of wild oysters and he can only sell them for a few cents more than that – while making many times that profit margin with clams – the current market does not work for him.
Another factor in the discrepancy is the seasonal nature of the local bivalves, according to Johan Van Nieuwland, kitchen manager for J.B.’s Seafood Restaurant, just feet from Sullivan’s clam-farming operation. Unlike other oystering areas, both in Florida and other states such as Texas, the oysters outside his back door are at their prime only for a few months. The restaurant uses both kinds.
“We use lagoon oysters for steaming and Galveston (Texas) oysters for our raw,” he said.
However, if the local variety was farmed, they might be able to close the gap, according to May. Still, when one realizes oysters are among the state’s top commercial seafood products – bringing in more than $6 million at the dock in 2009 – there are individuals who believe the living gems that rest in local waters are worth pursuing.
“People know (Oak Hill oysters), and they are willing to pay a little more for them,” Collins-Cook said.