More than 100,000 bushels of oysters are now residing on a newly formed reef in Mobile Bay in the first phase of the “Oyster Relay,” a coordinated effort to revitalize the ailing oyster industry along the Alabama Gulf Coast.
After two hurricanes and three years of drought, the oyster industry along the Gulf Coast has been suffering through one of its lowest production periods since record-keeping started in 1950. The hurricanes displaced many oysters from the reefs and the subsequent drought allowed oyster drills, a destructive marine snail, to attack the remaining oysters.
With funds from Emergency Disaster Relief Program (Hurricane Katrina), the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division administered the recruitment of more than 900 of the area’s oystermen to transfer oysters from reefs in upper Mobile Bay to the new reef about 2.5 miles south of the mouth of East Fowl River.
“Everyone who enjoys the delicious oysters that are harvested from the Alabama Gulf Coast should be thrilled with the ‘Oyster Relay’ and the work done to restore this cherished natural resource,” said Governor Bob Riley.
Jason Herrmann, biologist with Marine Resources, said the recent planting effort covers about 75 acres of the new 800-acre reef. The Alabama Department of Public Health will check the reef to determine when the oysters meet human consumption standards.
“The oysters have to sit on the reef for at least 21 days,” Herrmann said. “But the reef may not open until Oct. 1. The reason is the actual quality of the oysters. The oysters need to spend a certain amount of time on the new reef in order to acclimate to the new area and feed enough to make them a higher quality product for the oyster industry. We are in the process of getting additional cultch material to plant on the reef that will serve as substrate for oyster larvae and hopefully eventually expand the oyster production on the reef.”
Bayou La Batre Mayor Stan Wright, who is also in the seafood business, became the Marine Resources’ oyster consultant last year and is heavily involved in the relay.
“This is a definitely a blessing for the state of Alabama,” Wright said. “The short-term plan for the project was to relay oysters from up the bay to more acceptable water conditions and put our fishermen to work quickly. Another part of the short-term plan was to use some Katrina money to benefit the fishermen by letting them plant the shells to enhance these reefs with culch. But it takes about two years for these oysters to grow big enough to harvest, which means it’s really a long-term plan.”
During the recent relay, tongers took oysters from a shallow-water reef north of Gaillard Island in Mobile Bay, while dredges were used to gather oysters in deeper water south of the island. The oysters were then loaded onto barges and transferred to the new reef.
“The oyster industry in Alabama has been decimated by natural disasters and drought,” said Conservation Commissioner Barnett Lawley. “The seafood industry along the Alabama Gulf Coast is a vital part of the coastal community. The ‘Oyster Relay’ will hopefully begin to revitalize the seafood production in Alabama and provide the quality of oysters to which consumers have become accustomed.”