Florida's Oyster Season Heats Up

Harvest peaks in fall and winter making oysters perfect for Thanksgiving.

Now is the perfect time to enjoy Florida's famous oysters.  Florida oysters are available year round, but harvest really gears up in fall as water temperatures begin to drop.  The cool months are when oysters taste the best.  Head to your favorite seafood market or restaurant now and you'll find delicious Florida oysters in abundance.

Florida's oyster industry is based on the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), which is found from the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Lawrence River in Canada.  Ninety percent of Florida's oysters are harvested in Apalachicola Bay in Franklin County, one of the most productive, pristine estuaries in the country.  In the warm, nutrient-rich waters of the bay, oysters grow quickly and can reach market size in less than two years.  (Farther north, in colder waters, this process might take up to six years.)

Oysters are among Florida's top commercial seafood products in terms of dockside value, with last season's harvest totaling over $6 million.  And oysters are valuable in many other ways too.  They play a critical role in their ecosystems, filtering and cleaning the water, helping to stabilize the coastline, and providing habitat for fish, shrimp, crabs, and other animals.

In Florida, shell or "cultch" planting -- the placement of processed oyster shell on depleted oyster reefs and suitable bay bottom areas -- is an important resource management tool for maintaining and enhancing productive oyster habitat.  Shell plantings provide an excellent base upon which free-swimming oyster larvae can attach and grow.

"Florida has maintained an effective shell-planting program since the early 1900s," Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said.  "Since the program began, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has collected and planted more than 10 million bushels of shucked oyster shells.  This practice mitigates resource losses and contributes direct economic benefit to Florida's oyster fishery."

Florida's top three oyster-producing counties are Franklin, Levy, and Wakulla.  Along Florida's Gulf Coast, oysters are still harvested in the same way they have been for over a century:  from small boats by fishermen using large, long-handled tongs to scoop them up from their beds in the shallow water.  Hand-tonging for oysters is backbreaking work, but it's much more sustainable than other harvest methods, such as dredging, which heavily damages oyster beds.

Fresh oysters are sold live or shucked.  Live oysters should have a mild sea-breeze aroma, and their shells should be free of cracks.  Live oysters should close tightly when their shells are tapped, and oysters that do not close should be discarded.  Live oysters should be stored in the refrigerator at a constant 41 degrees Fahrenheit in a container with the lid slightly open.  Excess liquid should be drained daily.  Live oysters should be eaten within seven days of purchase and washed thoroughly before cooking.

Fresh-shucked oysters should also have a mild sea-breeze aroma.  They can be stored on ice or in the coldest part of the refrigerator for up to five days from the date of purchase.  Expect to see a clear or slightly milky, light gray liquid in the container.

People with compromised immune systems should avoid consumption of raw oysters due to the possible presence of Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium that occurs naturally in marine waters (it is not the result of pollution or poor handling).  Vibrio vulnificus is not a threat to most healthy people, but it can be dangerous to people with certain medical conditions, including liver disease, diabetes, and cancer.  It is a myth that eating raw oysters with hot sauce or while drinking alcohol will kill the bacteria.  However, heat will destroy Vibrio vulnificus, so everyone, even people in high-risk groups, can safely consume oysters that have been thoroughly cooked.

Oysters can be steamed, boiled, oven-roasted, baked, grilled, or fried.  When fully cooked, they become plump and opaque and their edges begin to curl.

Oysters are highly nutritious.  They are a low-calorie, low-cholesterol source of protein; an exceptional source of zinc, which strengthens the immune system; and a prime source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked to reduced risk of heart attack, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and stroke.

Try these delicious Florida oyster recipes:

Spicy Jalapeno Cheese and Bacon Oysters

Caesar Salad with Fried Oysters

Fancy Florida Seafood Gumbo

Florida Seafood Gumbo

Golden Oyster Chowder

Lemon Garlic Oysters

Oyster Saute

Oyster Stew

Oyster Dressing

Oyster, Duck and Sausage Gumbo

Oysters Rockefeller

Red Hot Oysters

Spicy Oysters with Mango Dip

Wine-Baked Oysters and Crab

Easy Baked Oysters

Oyster Po-Boy

Fried Florida Oysters

Florida Oyster Casserole
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