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Volunteers grow thousands of oysters for restoration program

By: Melissa Schneider / Published: Nov 17,  2014

Volunteers in Alabama have grown 59,330 oysters since late June as part of the Mobile Bay Oyster Gardening Program. The oysters were planted on restoration sites in Mobile Bay last week, where they are filtering water and making it cleaner while also providing habitat for fish, crabs and other organisms.

The Oyster Gardening program is run through a partnership made up of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program.

As part of the program, more than 80 volunteers at 36 sites received bags of baby oysters (called spat) this summer and cared for them on waterfront property. The volunteers put the tiny oysters (that were attached to large pieces of oyster shell) in gardens that hang from piers and rested about a foot from the bottom. Each week, the volunteers pulled up the gardens to wash out any predator oyster drills, algae or other fouling that could hinder the growth of the oysters.

“Historically, each gardening site produces 1,000 oysters,” said PJ Waters, the program’s coordinator. “This year, that average rose more than 60 percent. Each site produced, on average, 1,648 oysters.”

This positive increase likely is a result of two factors, Waters said. First, scientists at the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory were able to set a lot of baby oysters on each shell the volunteers received and put in the water. Second, the diligent caretaking efforts of the volunteers likely helped the oyster survival rate as the spat grew from 5 millimeters to an average of 46 millimeters.

This spadefish is an example of how oysters serve as habitat for fish and other organisms.This season’s 59,330 oysters represent enough to restock about 2.9 acres of oyster reef, Waters said. The oysters from the program are planted in protected waters, not on reefs that open for harvest.

“We know of 300 different species of vertebrates and invertebrates that use oyster reefs for habitat at different stages of their life cycles,” Waters said.

For more information, contact Waters at the Auburn University Marine Extension and Research Center at 251-438-5690 or waterph@aces.edu.

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