A common part of many coastal diets for thousands of years, oysters have their fans all over the world today.
The Chinese began to cultivate oysters more than 2000 years ago, with Greeks, Romans, and others soon adding them to their ancient diets.
Once a cheap substitute for meat, oysters became an overharvested and costly delicacy in the 20th century.
Today, declining harvests and escalating prices have put new pressure on those who crave a meal on the half-shell.
Here are 10 reasons oysters are so expensive.
Why Are Oysters So Expensive? (Top 10 Reasons)
1. They Became A Delicacy
Originally cooked over a fire thousands of years ago, oysters had their earliest fans long before metal-tipped oyster shuckers were invented to open them.
Fossilized oyster shells from some coastal regions indicate that humans have enjoyed oysters for thousands of years.
The Greek and Roman empires considered these mollusks a delicacy, and oyster shells were even used in some early Greek coastal settlements to cast ballots.
During their “Golden Age” in the 1700s and 1800s, oysters became an easy-to-harvest source of high-quality protein.
Year-round harvesting along some European coasts led to shortages on that side of the Atlantic in the 1800s.
Valuing their tasty enhancement to many coastal French diets, the French successfully began to breed oysters in the first “oyster farms” before 1900.
The French developed a vibrant, profitable oyster industry more than a century ago.
As rarity affected the available supply of oysters, the price for this delicacy has continued to increase.
2. Demand Exceeds Supply From High-Priced Sources
Unlike many foods that have experienced increases in consumption, oysters are a one-time staple food consumed less frequently today than before.
Beef, pork, and chicken were once expensive commodities, but consumption of these proteins has increased dramatically as grocery stores and supermarkets have replaced slaughterhouses.
The fate of oysters has taken a different path.
Oysters are no longer a common and cheap source of protein for those living on the coast.
Instead, they have become one of the most expensive items on restaurant menus that include them.
Part of this decline involves overharvesting and other environmental factors that have led to smaller harvests.
Although fewer people eat oysters today, those who do must pay much more for the privilege of slurping the oysters from their shells.
Oysters that used to cost $2 to $3 a dozen a few decades ago now can cost more than that for a single oyster.
Demand continues to influence prices.
In March 2022, oyster processors paid up to $70 a sack for oysters landing at the dock.
Whether harvested from the Gulf Coast, in the Pacific, Atlantic, or elsewhere, oysters sold by high-priced commercial sources command a higher price for the scarce supply.
3. Consumer Demand Away From The Coast
Before the mid-1800s, most people who enjoyed oysters lived near the coast.
The invention of the iron horse fortified the demand for oysters in faraway destinations.
These railroad locomotives motivated people away from the coast to try oysters and allowed those who moved from coastal communities to enjoy a delicacy that they had once purchased on the coast.
As railroad companies extended their lines far from the Atlantic coast, some began to include oysters in their cargo.
Similar developments happened in Europe at about the same time.
Improvements in canning methods and the invention of refrigeration allowed for the shipment of oysters for a greater distance with less spoilage.
Railroads and ships first brought oysters to cities that grew during the industrial revolution.
By one account, in the late 1800s, residents of New York City consumed approximately 600 oysters each year.
That is almost a dozen shucked oysters per person per week.
Today, Americans average only three oysters per year.
What was once an affordable dish for most New Yorkers 150 years ago has become a delicacy today.
Today, New Yorkers consume many more bagels, hot dogs, hot pretzels, and pizza slices than the oysters they used to slide down their throats.
Not only has the number declined, but the average size of these oysters has, as well.
Shell middens hold archaeological evidence of meals consumed near the Hudson River long before colonists came to the Americas.
Some of these oyster shells surpassed 10 inches in length.
With improvements in transportation, the railroads of yesteryear have been replaced by planes and air-conditioned trucks.
Oysters continue to appear on menus of restaurants in Maine, Massachusetts, and New York.
With enhanced transportation today, they just as easily appear on the menus of restaurants in Arizona, Iowa, Nebraska, and New Mexico.
4. Require Time To Mature
There is no way to fast-track an oyster’s journey from spat to shelled delicacy.
This process takes between 18 and 24 months, the time required for a spat to grow into a market-sized adult oyster in a shell of approximately three inches.
Even those trying to harvest them on an oyster farm have no way to accelerate this process.
They must anticipate a gestation and growth period of two years before they can think of getting even a modest return on their investment.
Oysters need room to expand, as well as time to do it.
In some agriculture and aquaculture enterprises, ways exist to accelerate the growth process.
However, there is no hydroponic lab or greenhouse to encourage oysters to kick their growth into overdrive.
Instead, the rules and timelines of this shell game are set by the oysters, as they mature at a pace they choose, not as quickly as we might demand.
5. Growing Them Is Difficult
While oysters require about two years to reach their market viability, the process of harvesting them on an oyster farm is tedious and involves great difficulty.
These are not salmon, catfish, or other species that can be fed to accelerate their growth and expand their biomass.
These are not the plump and juicy roasted chickens one may pick up at a nearby membership club as a cheap dinner for the family.
Oysters do not grow through injections of food supplements.
The small spats take shape in an ecologically clean setting, a place where they can grow at their own pace and without unnecessary interruption.
Oyster farming has gained momentum in recent years in the Chesapeake Bay, with Maryland issuing 300 licenses to oyster farmers who watch nature take its course along the coastal shores.
By one estimate, farmed oysters represent approximately 95% of those consumed for meals throughout the world.
As these farmed oyster colonies have replaced the overharvested natural oyster beds, the work of oyster farmers continues.
They do not need to fertilize their shell crop.
If anything, they try to keep fertilizers and other chemicals away from these growing mollusks.
Despite the efforts of oyster harvesters and farmers, their job continues to grow more difficult as the demand for oysters continues to grow.
By the middle of the 20th century, oysters were over-fished, and natural oyster stocks became desperately low.
In the year 1964, only three million oysters were fished from the waters surrounding the United Kingdom.
In 1965, the United Kingdom approved a plan to introduce robust oyster breeds from Pacific Ocean waters from near Japan to along the UK coastline.
This plan to reinvigorate local oyster populations with an Asian import occurred under strict rules and regulations.
In recent years, more than 95% of the oysters harvested in waters near Britain, Scotland, and parts of Northern Ireland for sale and consumption trace their roots back to the Pacific Ocean.
Even with marine biologists and oyster farmers tracking the growth and development of delicious oysters, problems persist in trying to farm and harvest oysters in large quantities.
A decade ago, the entire 2012 crop of market-sized New England oysters left their shells for the bellies of satisfied diners sooner than expected.
Oyster farmers could not harvest enough supply to meet demand.
Those searching for wild oysters along the coast could not fill the gap.
Once again, oysters became more expensive as their recently-shucked shells sat atop ice cubes next to a lemon wedge and cocktail sauce.
Whether farmed from more controlled water environments or harvested in the wild waters along the coast, the overharvesting of oysters that accelerated during the 20th century has continued in the new millennium.
Old, once-reliable oyster beds near the shoreline of New Jersey and New York suffered great declines decades ago.
Harvesting in those areas had to cease due to overharvesting and the presence of toxins.
As oyster boats sailed into mid-Atlantic destinations such as the Chesapeake Bay, pressure grew in those areas as well.
In many places, formerly popular oyster harvesting areas that have suffered from a significant decline in their native oyster species have experienced the introduction of non-native oyster species.
Fishers and suppliers hope to meet the never-ending demand of consumers.
The over-harvesting of oysters has an environmental impact that goes beyond the increasing scarcity of oysters in restaurants and the expensive price that oysters on the half shell now command.
The harvesting of these mollusks by dredges and tongs has had adverse consequences on many coastal reefs.
Similar to a pair of tongs in a person’s hand grabbing at something on a plate, these tools sometimes gather more than one expects.
Tong harvesting to scrape living oysters may also damage the reefs that they once called their home.
Damaged reefs do not heal overnight.
Overharvested reefs may take decades to regrow, and this assumes that growing water acidity, warmer water temperatures, and other ecological and environmental factors will not slow or halt this healing.
During this long period, younger fish, small crabs, and other sea creatures have lost a much-needed habitat for their survival, as well.
These damaged reefs also harm future generations of oysters.
This occurs because oysters tend to grow more quickly and extensively atop reef structures than they do closer to the bottom of the water.
7. Must Be Purchased And Processed Carefully
Unlike the baked goods or farm-fresh produce one may purchase from a farmer’s market or fruit stand, one must exercise caution when buying oysters.
Although some roadside seafood stands may sell iced oysters, one must be careful about buying them if the seller is unknown.
Oysters acquired from commercial establishments pass through an inspection system.
Often, when restaurants buy boxes of oysters to shuck and serve, they will also see an inspection tag inside the box.
Buying oysters from unknown sources may lead to bad outcomes.
Sometimes, a person gets sick even if the raw ones have come from a reputable source.
Similar to raw eggs and meat, warnings often advise consumers to refrain from eating uncooked oysters.
This is due to the frequent presence of Vibrio vulnificus, a breed of bacteria that flourishes in coastal estuaries where oysters often grow.
Found in warm salt water, Vibrio vulnificus is in the same bacteriological family as cholera, a family one should never meet.
Uncooked oysters may also contain other viruses that pose serious health risks.
Unlike rancid meat or moldy bread, one cannot detect whether a raw oyster is bad simply by looking at it.
8. Dirty Water
Oysters clean the waters where they live.
Each one can filter between 30 to 50 gallons of water every day.
They are great to eat and great for the environment.
These natural filters remove excessive pollutants from the water, helping to promote the growth of underwater seagrasses.
The same filtering qualities that make oysters an important source of cleaner water also affect their health, as well as the potential health of those who consume them.
By 1927, pollution from industrial developments and toxic chemicals in the water prompted the closure of the oyster beds around New York City.
Fifty years after the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, oyster beds in this area remain inedible.
Oysters may filter water, but they cannot reduce the levels of heavy metals such as mercury and lead that have entered their systems.
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other contaminants caused by oil spills and other chemical pollution pose problems.
Dirty water makes many of the oysters within it a health hazard to consume, whether cooked or raw.
9. The Raw Truth Of Water Wars
Recent situations along Florida’s Big Bend area tell the story of how tenuous oyster crops can become.
Droughts, tropical storms, and hurricanes throughout the years have had impacts on the oyster reefs within Apalachicola Bay.
After short-term declines, the oyster populations in this estuary of the Gulf of Mexico always experienced a quick recovery.
State officials in Florida helped to guarantee a stable oyster harvest by managing the collection of oysters, closing the season during summer months, and establishing a minimum size for taking them from the warm, productive waters.
Oyster tongers once harvested a bounty, using their tongs to load buckets of fresh mollusks captured from the waters near Apalachicola and getting cash payments once they returned to port.
They used homemade tongs fashioned from fir or pine, earning their keep and guaranteeing a regular, reliable shellfish staple for restaurants in Apalachicola, and throughout the Gulf coast.
In the early 1980s, more than 400 skiffs sailed these waters, with oyster tongers busily collecting their catch.
Since then, some people in Georgia began to turn on their faucets more frequently and that had a direct impact on the oysters at Apalachicola.
The Chattahoochee River flows through the Atlanta metropolitan area, an urban region built upon rocks that makes it difficult to dig deep wells in many areas.
As Atlanta and other Georgia municipalities took more water from the Chattahoochee River, less water flowed downriver.
Near where Interstate 85 crosses between Georgia and Alabama, it travels above the Chattahoochee River.
From that point southward, the Chattahoochee serves to divide Alabama from Georgia.
The Chattahoochee River later spills into Lake Seminole, after Florida replaced Alabama as the state across the lake from Georgia.
Georgia’s Flint River also drains into Lake Seminole.
South of Lake Seminole, this body changes from the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers to the Apalachicola River.
Water wars between Alabama, Florida, and Georgia have affected the flow and balance of water along these important southern rivers.
As droughts increased during the early 2000s, Georgia took more water from these important sources.
With less fresh water flowing into Apalachicola Bay, the natural balance of salt and fresh water flows has changed, having a profound effect on the ability of oysters to grow in Apalachicola Bay.
The oysters that have grown in this area need a perfect balance of fresh and saline water.
This balance allowed the oysters from Apalachicola to grow to 10% of the nation’s total harvest.
A decade ago, in 2012, three million pounds of oysters were collected by commercial fleets operating out of Apalachicola.
Today, the number is zero.
Worried about declines in the Apalachicola Bay oyster harvest, Florida sued Georgia, claiming its neighbor to the north took too much water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers.
By a 9-0 decision, the United States Supreme Court sided with Georgia.
Although Florida lost the case, the real losers were the oysters that did not get the proper salt and fresh water balance to thrive.
Following the court decision, Florida’s leaders made a drastic decision.
In December 2020, the state closed Apalachicola Bay to any commercial oyster harvesting for five years.
The bay that once harvested 90% of the state’s oysters and 10% of the nation’s crop is off-limits until the end of 2025.
This closure prompted by water wars has made the price of oysters more expensive.
10. Hurricanes And Global Warming
The final reason for expensive oysters is one that requires a lot of consideration.
A warmer climate leads to more frequent hurricanes and tropical disturbances.
Since the oceans absorb carbon dioxide, they have become more acidic.
Acidification presently affects oyster harvests in the Chesapeake Bay region and elsewhere.
Higher acidity makes it difficult for oysters to get the carbonate they need to grow their shells.
Oysters and other mollusks will have weaker shells and grow to smaller sizes, bad news for future generations wanting cheap oyster meals.
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