Cultivating a demand for raw Gulf oysters five years after BP spill

Willie Grace | 4/22/2015, 2:27 p.m.
Now, after trying the slimy mollusks for the first time in 2014, the pair of recent retirees partakes in oyster ...
The world is your oyster -- especially seeing that August 5 is National Oyster Day.

(CNN) -- Mike and Ardis Knoflicek acquired a taste for raw oysters late in life.

Growing up in rural Nebraska, "Rocky Mountain oysters were as close as we got" to seafood, Mike jokes.

Now, after trying the slimy mollusks for the first time in 2014, the pair of recent retirees partakes in oyster happy hour nearly every two weeks at Kimball House in Decatur, Georgia.

It's the kind of oyster loyalty Kimball House co-owner Bryan Rackley tries to foster by serving new varieties whenever possible. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the Knofliceks had the opportunity to try some new, rare additions to Kimball House's oyster menu from Alabama's Gulf Coast.

Little did they know of the work that went into bringing those oysters to the bar. They were pulled out of Alabama's Portersville Bay two days earlier as part of an oyster farming system so new to the region that distribution channels outside Alabama barely exist. To bring them to the restaurant, Rackley drove 150 miles each way to Birmingham and back that day.

Why? "Because they're good," he says, and he thinks they deserve a place on the menu just as much as their East and West Coast counterparts.

He's not the only one. Five years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Rackley is part of a group of restaurateurs, scientists and oyster farmers who believe the Gulf of Mexico's warm, brackish waters can nourish an oyster worthy of being served on the half-shell in the country's finest raw bars.

No doubt they're swimming against the tide, given negative perceptions following the spill as images from the region showed oil washing up on the Gulf's shores, covering animals and marshes. Even before the spill, the Gulf coast had a history of environmental damage, making the thought of seafood that takes on the flavor of its environment less than palatable.

Rackley and other oyster evangelists see potential in this region, and they want to help it thrive again.

"We want people to know that Gulf seafood is safe and that oyster farmers there are turning out product just as good, if not better, than the East and West Coasts," he said. "It's about variety, about putting a Gulf oyster next to others and experiencing a different flavor profile that rounds out your oyster service."

Gulf seafood that has been inspected by the Food and Drug Administration before it goes to the marketplace is safe to eat, said Ben Sherman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Enhanced inspection measures of seafood from the Gulf took effect in the immediate wake of the spill.

Otherwise, it's too early to fully comprehend the scope of the oil spill on habitats and individual species. Researchers are still learning about the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, and it could take decades to understand the full impact of the BP oil spill on habitats and species in the Gulf of Mexico, Sherman said.

Some indicators are starting to emerge. A recent study of the oil's impacts on young bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna and amberjack showed dramatic effects from the oil, including severely malformed and malfunctioning hearts. Another study published in February indicates that the 2010 oil spill may be among the factors contributing to the ongoing deaths of bottlenose dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico.