Little Lagoon in Gulf Shores is already growing oysters with an extensive gardening program where those produced are then dropped into areas of Mobile Bay now closed to harvesting.
“We will harvest probably between 50,000 and 60,000 oysters this year that are going to be two, two-and-a-half-inches in size,” Dennis Hatfield of the Little Lagoon Preservation Society (LLPS) said. “They are mature oysters, and they will spawn next spring after we put them on closed reefs in Mobile Bay. The whole idea is to produce billions of ‘baby’ oyster spat to help Mobile Bay reefs repopulate with the oysters that we are growing in the lagoon.”
There are also positive results in Little Lagoon from the oyster gardens.
“While the oysters are in lagoon waters they are filtering microbes and phytoplankton from water at a rate of up to 50 gallons of water per oyster per day, while enhancing fish, crab and shrimp habitat in the lagoon,” Hatfield said.
Hatfield and Gulf Shores officials are planning on $1.4 million of the upcoming $6 million Restore Act funding will be used to significantly expand oyster gardening in the lagoon.
“We’re hoping with that project to increase the number of oysters in the lagoon into the millions of oysters instead of tens of thousands,” Hatfield said. “Those oysters would remain in the lagoon for longer than with the current LLPS gardening program, and provide enhanced water quality and habitat benefits. We would still move oysters to Mobile Bay to help out with restoration in the bay.”
Restore funded gardening would begin in a “park” with suspended commercial cages where juvenile oysters would be produced for five years and as they mature, moved to “nests” or platforms throughout the lagoon. When the “nests” in the lagoon are full, oysters will be moved to closed reefs in Mobile Bay.
“Growing that many oysters will help enhance water quality as well as provide much needed habitat for other species in the lagoon,” Hatfield said. “When you look at one of our current gardens, they are chock full of multiple species of baby crab, fish and little brine shrimp. They’re really, really good habitat for the food chain and for helping the crab and shrimp populations.”
Restore Act money will also fund hydrodynamic modeling of the entire lagoon to refine understanding of hydrologic circulation patterns and flushing of the lagoon’s waters. Water quality data collection and use will be part of that modeling.
“One thing we would like to know with our science is if there are areas of the lagoon that would pass the Department of Public Health’s and Marine Resources Division’s requirements and allow certain parts of the lagoon to be reclassified to allow oyster gardening for consumption and not just remediation and restoration,” Hatfield said. “If the testing and data shows that there are parts of the lagoon that ‘qualify’ for reclassification we’ll present that data to ADPH and MRD and ask them to reclassify parts of the lagoon.”
Hatfield said the entire program is getting much needed help from Gulf Shores, the state health department and state conservation officials.
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