(OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss.) — The Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium (MASGC) welcomes Bill Walton of Auburn University to its outreach team. He is serving as an oyster aquaculture extension specialist who will use aquaculture as a tool for restoration, stock assessment and farming to help increase oyster production in Mississippi.
Walton, who has a doctorate degree in fisheries science, is also an associate professor at Auburn University, an extension specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and a faculty member at Dauphin Island Sea Lab.
A partnership between the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (DMR), The University of Southern Mississippi, Auburn University, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and MASGC made the position possible.
“MASGC is very fortunate to be able to work with long-time partners like the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the DMR,” MASGC Director LaDon Swann said. “Working together across state lines demonstrates trust and respect for everyone’s capabilities.”
Walton, whose research and outreach efforts have helped launch an off-bottom oyster aquaculture industry in Alabama, will focus on several key tasks to help Mississippi produce more oysters. In off-bottom aquaculture, oyster farmers grow oysters in baskets or other equipment that hangs from lines or floats near the top of the water and does not touch the water bottom.
“Off-bottom aquaculture focuses on a niche, specialty product for the half-shell market,” Walton said.
The Restoration and Resiliency plan produced by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s Oyster Council last year encouraged the state to promote aquaculture-based oyster farming and stock enhancement as methods to increase the amount of oysters in the Mississippi Sound.
“The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources has partnered with Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant and Dr. Bill Walton to capitalize on the expertise in oyster aquaculture and outreach to help accomplish Gov. Bryant's goal of harvesting 1 million sacks of oysters by 2025,” said Kelly Lucas, chief scientific officer for the DMR.
Walton will study what needs to be done in Mississippi to create a streamlined, affordable and understandable process for permitting oyster aquaculture operations.
“Oyster scientists and policy experts at USM, the DMR and MASGC’s Legal Program bring together the scientific knowledge that will be essential to streamline the permitting process to allow a sustainable oyster farming industry to contribute to the state’s economy while benefitting our coastal habitats,” Swann said.
Walton will also work with the DMR to give technical advice on setting up an oyster hatchery in Pass Christian and to find candidates to establish and run it. The hatchery will be a source of oyster seed for reef restoration.
Walton will help determine the best areas to place oysters in the Mississippi Sound to increase public oyster stocks. He also will work with scientists at USM’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL) to set up a small-scale remote setting system at the Cedar Point campus in Ocean Springs. Remote setting occurs when tiny, baby oysters (larvae) are placed in a tank with shell or other material (known as cultch). They then attach to that material and are held in running seawater until they are ready to be planted.
“As we continue to make progress with the production of oyster larvae in recirculating aquaculture systems, it’s important that we also take the next steps to assess how those oysters perform once transferred to Mississippi’s coastal waters,” said Read Hendon, associate director for GCRL. “Working with Bill and our staff at the Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center, we plan to conduct a series of experiments to evaluate the most effective methods for both remote setting and post-deployment growth and survival. Those research findings will allow us to better assist the state and oyster industry with restoration activities as they relate to our coastal fisheries and ecosystems."
Eventually, Walton is expected to help create and implement a training program, based on one already in place in Alabama, to teach potential oyster farmers the basics of off-bottom aquaculture.
Part of his job will involve keeping people informed of progress in oyster-growing methods.
“Dr. Walton is helping provide the public, entrepreneurs and resource managers with up-to-date information on oyster farming and aquaculture techniques,” Lucas said. “This outreach is a valuable service that helps the state achieve the goal having more oysters in our waters and helps create business and economic opportunities for our citizens.”