As the weather cools down, Florida’s oyster season heats up

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 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.

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.

They also 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 "clutch" 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 shellplanting 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.”

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.

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. For delicious Florida oyster recipes visit: