Volunteers in Mississippi started oyster gardening earlier this week. They received their oysters on Tuesday, amid rain from what would, within hours, be named Tropical Storm Cindy.
Justin McDonald, a relatively new addition to Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, is managing the Mississippi Oyster Gardening Program in its first year. He drove across the Mississippi Coast delivering oyster spat to nine sites in Gautier, Ocean Springs, Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis.
I caught up with him at a house on East Beach in Ocean Springs where Tonya Chancellor and her neighbors Sarah and Mari Adlakha were getting ready to become some of the first Mississippi oyster gardeners. Tonya asked her neighbors to participate so they could oyster garden as a group. She moved to Mississippi about a year ago from Missouri and said she was excited to learn more about oysters. Her neighbors, especially 10-year-old Mari, were ready to help.
Tonya said when she mentions that she’s going to be an oyster gardening volunteer to her friends, they all ask her when she’s having a picnic. But, you CANNOT eat these oysters. They are for restoration only.
Justin and volunteers will come back in November and collect the oysters when they are bigger. The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, which is a partner in the program, will determine where they will go in the Mississippi Sound.
In the meantime, oyster gardeners across the Coast will take about 30 minutes each week to maintain the gardens and help the oysters grow. Gardeners will shake the wire gardens in the water (or hose them off) to help remove algae and mud that may be clinging to the gardens. They also will take the cages out of the water and remove small blue crabs, oyster drills and other critters that may hinder oyster survival and growth.
Justin or a volunteer will be back throughout the summer to measure the oysters. Then, he’ll send the gardeners a monthly e-newsletter that includes charts of oyster growth. It fosters a friendly gardening competition.
If you don't have waterfront property, you can still participate by sponsoring a garden for $25. Gardens produce an average of 250 oysters.
The Mississippi Oyster Gardening Program is based on the Mobile Bay Oyster Gardening Program and is funded through a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.