It has been a very busy summer here in the Northern Gulf of Mexico for commercial oyster farmers, scientists, graduate students, extension specialists and the team at the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory.
The hatchery has been busy filing the spring seed orders and staying on track for the fall. Extension Specialist Bill Walton has completed a summer-long Oyster Farming Fundamentals class for prospective commercial operators here in Alabama and Mississippi. New lines and gear are being installed at the new Grand Bay Oyster Park that will be used for both commercial operations and research. There is growing interest in “off pier” oyster aquaculture where gear is suspended from existing private piers, which is less costly and time consuming than the permitting process for installing new pilings and anchors.
2017 has not been without some challenges. Tropical Storm Cindy caused salinity levels to drop for an extended period and caused 100-percent mortality at a couple of our northern most oyster farms. We are seeing some late summer mortality increases again this year with triploid oysters in some areas. Additionally, there has not been any improvement in the length of time it takes to obtain a permit for a commercial oyster farm here in Alabama. Overall, though, there is quite a bit of effort and resources being invested in our oyster farming industry, and the sense is that it is becoming more established and growing.
So, when Chuck Wierich of North Carolina Sea Grant invited me to present at a shellfish aquaculture workshop at the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute in Wanchese, N.C., last week, I was excited to share the goings-on from our region, as well as some of the tools that are available to potential oyster farmers. One strength of the Sea Grant network is cross-region outreach. Shared learnings help us make better use of our research project findings.
The workshop was very well planned and included presentations on the local industry, the state lands leasing program, a North Carolina siting tool, business resiliency planning, environmental benefits of oyster aquaculture, marketing, gear types, farm budgets and food handling safety.
However, the most interactive and interesting part of the day was during lunch when Joey Daniels, who has been operating an oyster farm there in Wanchese, spoke very candidly about his experience. He answered question after question about the challenges along the way. His most memorable comments to me were “it is hard work” and “start small.”
While traveling back home, I felt very grateful that I had the opportunity to learn so much about the oyster farming industry in North Carolina, as well as share resources and tools that we are working with down here on the Gulf Coast. The thing that struck me the most is that those of use that work in extension, research and agencies that are involved with oyster aquaculture on behalf of folks like Joey Daniels have a lot of work to do. We need to provide better business planning assistance and tools, better understanding of the causes and prevention of mortality, better paths to obtaining a permit for commercial aquaculture and better efforts in educating others about the environmental and community health benefits of oyster farming. Having met so many of the folks involved in this industry over the last year, I know that we will.