RESTORE Act money — to the tune of about $2.9 million — will be used to start an oyster hatchery the state hopes will restore reefs in Mobile Bay.
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources project will have sites at the Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores and the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. The award comes through the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, but is from a Natural Resource Damage Assessment grant through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Historically, oyster reefs rebuild themselves through recruitment,” Master of Aquaculture Max Westendorf said. “And recruitment is just where baby animals are introduced into the breeding population. There’s been very, very low recruitment in the last seven or eight years, to the point where our oysters are dying faster than they can repopulate.”
Oyster harvesting was halted in Mobile Bay in hopes the population would rebound, but that and other measures don’t seem to be working.
“We’re taking the necessary steps,” Westendorf said. “They closed the oyster season altogether this year to try and take some of the additional pressure off. But we’ve kind of seen that there’s been low pressure for fishing recently, and they’re still not bouncing back like we want them to. This is a program to supplement the natural production of the oyster.”
Westendorf’s job is the first step of the program at the hatchery in Gulf Shores.
“We’ll have our brood stock, our egg fertilization and we’ll grow them out to where we call them an eyed larvae, which is about a 10- to 15-day-old oyster,” Westendorf said. “They are free swimming at that point and from there they have to set.”
That’s where the Dauphin Island facility steps in, he said.
“We have a setting facility on Dauphin Island and we’ll move our oysters over there,” Westendorf said. “They will set them on cultch and they have some different test sites just north of Dauphin Island.”
The next stop is Mobile Bay, where they’ll be placed on a reef.
“After allowing the oysters to grow to the desired size, the oysters and cultch will be deployed on project sites with the intention of restoring or enhancing our public oyster reefs,” said Jason Herrmann, Biologist II with the Alabama Marine Resources Division, based at the Dauphin Island Lab.
Each year the project plans to release millions of new oysters into the bay.
“We’ll be putting out hopefully somewhere around 65 million to 100 million oysters annually on our reef sites,” Westendorf said. “We’re identifying one location now, and it’s about a four- to five-year study. We’re essentially trying to re-establish a historical reef over that time period to see if our input and our work in trying to grow additional oysters can restore a historical reef.”
The first phase of the program is getting the hatchery built in Gulf Shores and the setting facility built on Dauphin Island. Westendorf hopes they’ll be ready to start producing the first oysters in 2020. The $2.9 million will pay to build the facilities and run the study for four years.
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