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Lessons from Hurricane Nate for oyster farmers

By: Bill Walton / Published: Nov 09,  2017

On Oct. 7, 2017, Hurricane Nate made landfall in Louisiana and then a second landfall in the middle of the night on Oct. 8 near Biloxi, Mississippi, bringing in storm surge, rip currents and hurricane-force winds. Hurricane Nate popped up and sped across the Gulf of Mexico in a matter of days, leaving many residents not quite fully prepared for the storm

This was also true for oyster farmers in Alabama and Mississippi. Watching the weather forecast, with the uncertainty about intensity and pathway, oyster farmers had to make some quick decisions that week about how to respond. Some farmers use floating cages, and one tactic to deal with storms is to sink those cages to the bottom (anchored on lines) to let the storm ride up and over them.

Some oyster farmers use floating bags like these to grow their oysters.
Some oyster farmers use floating bags like these to grow their oysters.

Others use baskets suspended on lines, which can be clipped down close to the bottom, again to allow the storm to ride up and over.

Some oyster farmers use the Australian longline system and can move the lines so baskets of oysters are near the bottom during a storm.
Some oyster farmers use the Australian longline system and can move the lines so baskets of oysters are near the bottom during a storm.

Based on the forecast, each farmer made the decisions that he or she thought gave them the best opportunity to get through the storm with little to no damage. Luckily, in this Category 1 storm, most of the farms fared well. In fact, most of the gear in the water performed very well, with farmers checking soon after the storm passed and straightening out any loose ends.

The storm did do substantial damage though, with significant damage to piers and land-based structures near the farms. Since the storm, farmers have been breaking their backs trying to rebuild these structures and pick up any debris. Nate may have provided us some assurance that the techniques in the water show some promise but also demonstrated that we need to be better prepared on land.

Looking forward, we reached out to local oyster farmers to interview them to learn more about their experiences and held an informal “debriefing.” This was a chance to compare notes, learn from each others’ experiences and identify needs. Based on this feedback, we are working with our local oyster farmers to:

  1. Identify what techniques worked well and which ones did not
  2. Help farmers create written protocols for storm preparation and recovery, and
  3. Demonstrate and practice storm response plans.

We also hope to build off some of the innovation and success of oyster farmers, such as the use of an air pump to help re-float oyster gear in Mississippi Sound by the Mobile Oyster Company, as can be seen in this video on Facebook.

By thinking about and preparing for storms like this, we hope that we can help this industry be better prepared for the next storm.

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