The Hangout Oyster Cook-Off will be held in Gulf Shores this weekend, but it likely will not feature Alabama oysters after heavy rains led to the closure of some of the state’s busiest bays for harvesting.
According Chris Blankenship, director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Marine Resources Division, the Cook-Off will feature plenty of “Gulf oysters,” and there’s still a good chance oysters from the northern portion of Dauphin Island and Baldwin County will be available.
However, since last week, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) has shut down harvesting in Portersville Bay, Grand Bay and Heron Bay in South Mobile County — an occurrence oyster producers in the area say is becoming far too common.
“It’s embarrassing,” Rebecca Eskridge of Coden Beach Oyster Farm said. “We were selling 5,000 [oysters] a week, and we’re a small company. But we’ve had to tell people from all over the country to ‘go to Texas or Louisiana because we’re shut down again,’ and they’re starting to lose interest because they can’t count on us.”
But the oyster farmers are not alone, as the delay in production has affected several businesses in the Bayou La Batre and Coden areas. The delay also comes during a year where the state has set aside $500,000 for its Alabama Gulf Seafood marketing campaign. It’s the third time the beds in the southern part of the county have been shut down this year, which is one more than last year.
In 2013, the state reported six shutdowns to the oyster beds, five of which were in the Bayou La Batre area. In 2012, three of four shutdowns were reported in the same area, but Blankenship said it’s not uncommon to see closures like this in any state along the Gulf Coast.
“This is not a new thing,” he said. “This is how the ADPH has managed the oyster waters for a long time. It has to do with the weather and the nature of eating a raw product like oysters.”
The weather has indeed been a factor this year.
As heavy rains in September caused flooding in Mobile, the runoff into the Bayou exceed the dilution levels the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows for oyster harvesting. Those levels have to do with the amount of fresh water that flows into Portersville Bay, which in large quantities can dilute the saltwater and create an environment for bacteria to grow.
Late last month the remnants of Hurricane Patricia dumped record amounts of rainfall across the Gulf Coast, leading to a shutdown just as the waters were gearing up to be reopened after a 21-day closure ordered in September.
Though the rain was undoubtedly a factor, the official cause listed by ADPH was the outfall line coming from the Bayou La Batre sewage treatment plant owned and operated by the Bayou La Batre Utilities Board.
According to the board’s Executive Director Michael McClantoc, the four-year-old, $20 million facility is capable of safely processing 3 million gallons of water in a 24-hour period. However, if it reaches 2.1 million gallons, the fresh water pumped into the bay will prompt the ADPH to shut down the oyster beds as a precaution.
The issue has already been addressed once, when the outfall line was extended from 500 feet offshore to 5,000 feet in 2012. Now, the board is working with the state to find funding to extend the outfall line even farther — perhaps as far as five miles into the Gulf, according to a $12 million project proposal submitted for RESTORE Act funding.
“It may only need to go out one more mile to hit the dilution rate they’re looking for, but heavy rains have the same effect,” McClantoc said. “When we hit 2.1 million gallons [last week], it was a short spike within a 24-hour period, and it went right back down. As far as extending the line, we can go another 10 miles out, but if there’s another heavy rain event it’s going to do the same thing.”
According to Ron Dawsey, who oversees the food division of the ADPH, almost all closures in the state are due to weather — specifically, significant rainfall events.
“As a federal requirement for the oysters to be sold in interstate commerce, all states with shellfish harvest areas must have a ‘predictive’ method for closures due to expected pollution events,” Dawsey said. “That is, something that indicates an increase in the fecal coliform levels in the harvest area waters at least 24 hours before the coliform levels are expected to exceed federal limits.”
If the levels of the rivers leading to the bay rise, Dawsey said, or if the local area sees more than 5 inches of rainfall in a single day, the possibility of contamination rises.
Even though the Bayou sewer facility is pumping farther offshore than before, McClantoc said the volume of the water is the issue, rather than the water quality. According to McClantoc, the water being pumped from the facility is “100 percent treated” and “cleaner than the water that’s already in the bay.”
An FDA study from 2014 supports McClantoc’s claims, a copy of which is available at lagniappemobile.com.
Still, Blankenship said the state is continuing to work with the Utilities Board to make sure there’s a long-term solution, so the outfall doesn’t become a significant issue as the board continues to add sewer customers.
Right now, a Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP) grant may tie 700 Coden residents into the system. Another request submitted for RESTORE Act funding could finance up to 1,000 additional customers, if approved.
According to Utilities Board President Sylvia Raley, the facility only processes a daily average of 800,000 gallons. The proposal for additional customers would bring the number up to just over 1 million gallons — far below the 2.1 million gallon limit.
As for the current closure, Blankenship said he remains hopeful the other beds in the state will be able to produce homegrown oysters for the weekend’s Cook-Off in Gulf Shores. Though he said the shutdown wasn’t out of the ordinary, he did call the timing “disappointing.”
“It’s difficult to market oysters if you have them where they can’t be harvested,” he said. “We do feel like we’re missing an opportunity not having Alabama oysters [at the Cook-Off], but I’d rather not have any than run the risk of somebody getting sick. That would be really damaging for the industry.”
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