After years of efforts to spur growth on Alabama’s ailing public oyster reefs, a perfect storm of good conditions has led to one of the best harvests Mobile Bay has seen in years.
Oyster production in Mobile Bay’s once bountiful waters has been at historically low levels for more than a decade, and the downturn has led to a decline in the local industry, a growing dependence on out-of-state oysters in coastal restaurants and millions of dollars in state restoration efforts.
At the center of those efforts has been the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR).
ADCNR’s Marine Resources Division, led by Director Scott Bannon, is tasked with monitoring and managing the fishery to determine its overall health and set the harvest seasons on public reefs. Last year, state biologists determined the oyster population had been so decimated by water quality issues and natural predators that the reefs wouldn’t be opening at all.
Throughout 2019, though, surveys indicated the population was rebounding, and officials planned for a season based on an estimated harvest of about 7,000 sacks (570,000 pounds) of oysters. Once on the water, though, oystermen quickly blew past that estimated haul and kept going.
“We’re somewhere around 9,500 sacks right now, and we anticipate ending the season at around 11,000. That is substantially more than we’ve harvested in the past five years combined,” Bannon said. “There were three days where we saw more than 100 boats out there and we probably averaged about 70 [boats] per day.”
The biggest challenges for oysters have been low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water as well as salinity or the level of salt in the water. Both have tended 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 2019, Bannon said “it seemed like all of the stars aligned for us.”
He said influxes of freshwater derailed the oyster seasons in Louisiana and Mississippi, but despite high water events in Alabama, the oysters here had matured enough to survive. There also proved to be just enough freshwater to keep oyster drills, a small shellfish predator, at bay, but not enough to significantly impact salinity.
Chris Nelson, the vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries, said the conditions in 2019 were “ideal” and the market price was higher than normal because of the problems in other states’ waters.
When the season opened Nov. 11, Nelson said the going price was around 80 cents per pound, but that dropped once Texas oysters began to come into the market. The lower prices were still good, though, which explains why so many oystermen flocked to the reefs — some for the first time in years.
Nelson, whose family has been in the seafood business since 1892, said the prices were some of the highest per pound he’s ever seen. However, with the primary reefs around Cedar Point West and Heron Bay still in a fragile state, ADCNR limited each state license holder to just six sacks per day.
“The catch limits were very low, so I don’t know what that meant for oystermen in terms of a day’s pay, but as far as what they were actually paid per pound, these are probably the highest prices that have ever been paid for Alabama oysters,” Nelson said.
Reports from oystermen on reefs and ADCNR surveys have also indicated a large number of young oysters that were too small to harvest on reefs this year. However, if conditions remain favorable and those continue to mature, they’ll be ready for market by the start of the 2020 season.
At the moment, the outlook is positive, but it’s hard to overstate how much the oyster population has declined. Local waters used to routinely produce more than a million pounds a year. Until this year, production hadn’t cracked 300,000 pounds for more than a decade. Those numbers are the reason why people like Nelson are responding to this year’s harvest with “guarded optimism.”
“It’s a welcome surprise, but this certainly doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods as far as needing to rebuild the fishery,” he said. “It was an excellent harvest, but what we’re comparing it to is what we’ve seen over the last five years, and that has been virtually nothing.”
Nelson, who expressed concern about addressing the underlying causes for the decline in the oyster population, said the stars might not always align like they did in 2019. He said salinity, dissolved oxygen, red tide, predators and natural events have always been concerns for oystermen, but it’s only been in recent years any one of those foes could sideline an entire season by itself.
“When we have these ideal conditions, we have an abundance, but even when the conditions are average, we don’t seem to have a crop at all,” Nelson said. “I’m afraid that we’re getting into a situation where you’ve almost got to have perfect conditions in order to have any kind of harvestable crop.”
Since 2011, more than $11.4 million has gone into various oyster restoration efforts, most of which paid for cultch material — shells and rocks that oysters grow on — to be spread along existing reefs. Those have had mixed results, to say the least, but Bannon said the state has shifted its focus and isn’t planting any new cultch material until biologists can get a better handle on what is driving some of the adverse water conditions in the bay.
Instead, current projects are aiming to map out the entire bay floor to better understand where oysters grow best and why. Others are trying to change up how cultch material is planted, using new techniques as well as raised beds that can hopefully get the oysters above pockets of low, dissolved oxygen and out of the murky bottom where they are sometimes smothered by silt as sediment redistributes.
The state also hopes to borrow from techniques that have been successful for Alabama’s burgeoning aquaculture programs, which grow oysters in off-bottom cages. Those oysters are spawned and attached to cultch material in a lab before they’re ever put into the water. Similar approaches have helped boost the survivability of on-bottom oysters in other regions, and Alabama is hoping to test out something similar.
“We’re trying to look at it from a different perspective and have a more hands-on approach to sustaining some of these historic reefs and getting a better understanding of the dynamics of the water,” Bannon said. “We don’t want to put any more money into shell planting until we get a better understanding of why they’re not growing.”
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