The Eastern oyster industry in the United States produces 23 million pounds of oysters annually valued at $82.5 M. The Gulf of Mexico typically accounts for 89% of harvest by volume, but represents only 73% of the total dollar value. Experts at the Auburn University Shellfish Lab in Mobile County, Alabama are working to change that.
Despite the dramatic growth of oyster farming across the US, in the Gulf of Mexico region, oysters are only farmed extensively on bottom leases with the vast majority of production concentrated in Louisiana. Subject to environmental variability, the supply and quality of extensively farmed oysters varies widely. In contrast, oyster farmers using intensive, off-bottom methods focus on producing a steady supply of consistently premium oysters for the lucrative half shell niche market.
Off-bottom oyster farming, where watermen raise hatchery-reared oyster ‘seed’ in various containers, is an opportunity for a viable near-shore domestic aquaculture industry that can provide a large economic boon to the coastal communities along the Northern Gulf, to the producers as well as to the local supporting industries, can improve the environment, and can preserve working waterfronts. While substantial industries (over $100 million/year respectively) have been established on the US East and West coasts, a number of hurdles kept this industry from being established along the Gulf coast, including Alabama.
Beginning in 2009, Auburn University’s Marine Extension and Research Center and Auburn University Shellfish Lab’s Dr. Bill Walton, partnered with Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, began to tackle the hurdles to this industry in Alabama, conducting research to identify the most cost-effective methods of raising oysters best suited to the region. Auburn partnered with a number of industry members to share the results and identify research priorities moving forward. This led to additional research into culture methods, marketing aspects, permitting questions and food safety. In addition, Auburn University permitted a 32-acre oyster farm ‘business park’ and conducted a hands-on training program where participants established commercial oyster farms within this park.
Building off this one business park, nine new commercial oyster farms have been established in Alabama, with a 2014 harvest value exceeding $500,000, which is expected to exceed $1 million in 2015, increasing incomes and generating local jobs.
To learn more, check out a couple of short but really great videos: Redefining Gulf Oysters and For the Love of Oysters: Alabama’s Oyster Farmers.
Articles about these efforts can also be found in Auburn Speaks: On Food Systems, Auburn Speaks: On Water, and Auburn Speaks: The Oil Spill of 2010 available from the Auburn Speaks Store.