After a decade of disappointing landings and shorter seasons, state officials say Alabama’s public oyster reefs won’t be open to commercial and recreational harvesters at all this year.
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) made the announcement last week during an annual meeting with area oyster farmers and harvesters.
The news was met with disappointment but little surprise, as landings for oysters tonged from the bottom of Mobile Bay have been drastically low for years. Typically, public oyster reefs overseen by ADCNR would be open to commercial and recreational harvesters from October to May.
However, Scott Bannon, director of the ADCNR Marine Resources Division, said a number of factors have created persistent water quality issues that, combined with natural predators such as oyster drills, have made it difficult for most oysters to survive in areas where they once thrived.
The changing environment has led to a declining interest in oyster harvesting and made business tough for those who still do.
“People have been getting out of the business of harvesting oysters altogether. Even when the reefs were open last year, there weren’t many oyster catchers out there because they knew there wasn’t any money in it,” Bannon said. “Two sacks a day? You can’t make a living on that.”
In years past, it wasn’t uncommon for harvesters to catch a million pounds of oysters on public reefs in places like Heron Bay and Cedar Point. However, production hasn’t cleared 300,000 pounds since 2008 despite costly efforts to rehabilitate historic growing areas in Mobile Bay.
On a bar graph of annual oyster landings over time, the 2017 numbers barely register. While there have always been ebbs and flows in the number of oysters harvested, most historic dips have been tied to hurricanes, oil spills or red tide.
For some officials, the concern isn’t the low numbers, it’s the trend’s duration. State biologists can’t agree on exactly how to reverse it. Bannon said in addition to protecting what’s already out there, not having a 2018 oyster season will act as a bit of a “reset.”
“We’ve decided we had to take a different approach,” he said.
Oyster restoration has been a “priority goal” for ADCNR, and since 2011 more than $11.4 million from the state’s various sources of oil spill recovery funding has gone toward 19 different projects aimed at improving coastal Alabama’s struggling oyster industry.
Many of those focus on planting clutch material the oyster larvae must attach to in order to grow. The state has also “restored” more than 900 acres of oyster reef, but despite those gains the number of healthy, harvestable oysters on Alabama’s public reefs has seldom been lower.
Larvae are attaching to the newly placed material in greater numbers than were seen at most locations in last year’s ADCNR report. However, the vast majority are not surviving.
Bannon said the biggest water quality challenges have been low levels of dissolved oxygen and salinity (the level of salt in the water). Both tend to hit extremes in the summer months, and for the past couple of years if one hasn’t been a problem for Alabama oysters, the other has.
In 2017, salinity measured at public reefs dropped to dangerous levels for 19 straight days over the summer. There was only a 10-day stretch that hit those same levels this year, but at around the same time, low levels of dissolved oxygen became problematic for oysters twice as often.
The level of dissolved oxygen in local waters fell below 4 milligrams per liter 70 out of 140 days between May and September, compared to only 40 days during the same period last year.
Low levels of dissolved oxygen can harm fisheries, but because there is more oxygen closer to the water’s surface it can be especially lethal for naturally grown oysters. What’s worse, according to a study released last month by the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, those low-level areas are expanding.
As a result of the study led by Dr. Brian Dzwonkowski, biologists expect those areas will continue growing in Mobile Bay and throughout the Mississippi Bight region “due to human impacts on the environment” including coastal urbanization, ocean warming and other factors.
While the situation appears dire, Bannon said Alabama still has the opportunity to try different approaches that could give oysters the best chance of survival. He said the state will soon be moving forward with a large-scale remote setting program that would see newly set young oysters strategically placed in various areas of the bay to see where they fare best.
That could help, Bannon said, because the optimum oyster growing areas may have shifted from their traditional locations over time as the bay has changed. He said oil spill recovery funds will also help monitor and research ongoing projects to provide better information in the future.
Yet Bannon also mentioned changes in biological conditions and the shuffling of viable growing areas could likely be correlated to human activity surrounding the bay. He specifically referenced the “tremendous” activity in the Mobile Ship Channel, the Spanish Fort Causeway and the Eastern Shore’s continued development.
All are good things, he said, but could also affect how and where oysters grow.
“There are so many impacts to the environment, and we have to adapt to that. You have to have oysters to have a healthy water system,” he said. “We want people to have jobs. We want to have a thriving economy on the coast, but without a healthy water system, we won’t have any of that.”
More information about the current conditions on Alabama’s public oyster reefs and the full report from ADCNR’s Marine Resources Division can be found at lagniappemobile.com.
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