Oysters not only fulfill people’s seafood cravings, they also provide a valuable natural resource for the environment and economy in Alabama.
There are currently eight commercial oyster farms and this summer Alabama will also have two commercial oyster nurseries operating, as well as at least three more oyster farms expecting to be fully permitted and harvesting by fall 2015.
The growth of oyster farms in Alabama is significant considering in 2009 there was no oyster farming. In 2014 harvest was approximately 1 million oysters, with a projected harvest well over 2 million in 2015 and seed orders for farms this year currently totals more than five million seed.
“Oyster farming is one way to create jobs and start businesses,” said Dr. William Walton, an Extension specialist. “It’s hard work but it’s out on the water and it’s maintaining a way of life while also giving these coastal communities another way for people to stay there.”
Walton said that they are very hopeful that the businesses that have started will succeed for many years, as well as the supporting businesses that have been created from the rise in oyster farming.
“You have oyster farms and then that also leads to some people starting an oyster nursery that supply those farms with oyster seeds,” Walton said. “The local businesses are selling supplies and equipment to those. Then of course restaurants are selling the oysters and hopefully bringing in more customers. So we’re hoping that everybody is benefitting economically.”
Other than the positive economic factors that come with having oyster farms, Walton noted that it’s also part of the culture.
“Oyster farming itself, the technique may be new here, but the idea of making your living out in Mississippi Sound or Mobile Bay, that’s part of what we’ve done,” Walton said. “We’re hoping to preserve a culture.”
Oysters are also considered to be a “keystone species” because of the important ecological services that they do to help maintain and improve water quality. Walton said that putting oysters into the bays is a little like putting sheep into an overgrown pasture.
“Oysters are going to help graze down the extra phytoplankton that’s out there,” Walton said. “Ideally, if you put enough oysters out there that will start improving the environment.”
The other interesting and valuable aspect associated with oyster farms is that they are clearly habitats. According to Walton, when you put an oyster farm in the water it essentially builds an artificial reef.
“You’ll see all sorts of different species that start to use the farm as a place to live and that’s great,” Walton said. “The good news with oyster farming is you don’t feed your oysters since they feed from what’s in the water. You don’t medicate your oysters and we’re using a native species. When I think about oyster farming I think about economics, culture and the environment, and it seems to be a good thing for our state to do.”
There is a permitting process that residents can go through if they are serious about becoming involved with oyster farming.
“It costs some money and takes some time but it is a transparent process and is doable,” Walton said. “The permitting process is for people interested in becoming true commercial oyster farmers who are looking to make a business of it.”
Walton emphasized that you definitely should do your homework and research before you hope to become an oyster farmer.
“There are a lot of hurdles to clear before you can get that farm,” Walton said. “This isn’t get rich quick; it’s hard work out on the water in all sorts of condition, but it just calls to some folks. I’d be glad to help people. They can approach me or go to my website to start walking them through it.”