Current Connection Spring 2020 - The Oyster: An Icon of Life on the Alabama Gulf Coast

Commercial oyster men tonging oysters near Cedar Point.

The Oyster: An Icon of Life on the Alabama Gulf Coast

by Roberta Swann, Director, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program

One thing I have learned since moving to Alabama 20 years ago is this: you can’t beat the salty, creamy taste of an oyster grown in our waters. Wild or farmed, the oyster is an iconic representative
of life along the Alabama coast. They are central to its heritage and culture, providing food, work, and a way of life to many of the folks in Bon Secour, Bayou La Batre, and other coastal communities. Having grown up in coastal Massachusetts, eating oysters has always been a part of my life. It wasn’t until I moved to Dauphin Island that I discovered how good oysters could be and how important they are to the people who live and grew up here.

The state of our oyster fishery is a cause for concern, given dwindling wild populations. Alabama’s oyster reefs in Mobile Bay, Bon Secour Bay, around Cedar Point, and in Mississippi Sound are suffering. Harvests were historically low in 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, and surveys revealed so few harvestable oysters that no harvest was opened in 2018-2019. The factors underlying the reduced productivity are discussed by Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Scott Bannon in this issue, along with three separate measures AMRD is undertaking to better manage wild oyster populations.

And yet, there is great work being done to bring Alabama-grown oysters back to our tables. Gulf oysters grow rapidly and can reach maturity in as few as six months, compared to northeastern oysters which take four times that long. This simple fact provides a key for alternative methods of growing oysters. As you flip through the pages of this season’s Alabama Current Connection, learn about how oyster gardening, an outreach activity initially conceived to improve productivity on our wild reefs, has given rise to a new and burgeoning industry: off-bottom oyster aquaculture. Some former oyster gardeners and new investors have expanded operations, providing hatchery-reared, single-set oysters with a lovely shape and appearance to the premium half-shell market by count.

This issue is of particular importance to the Swann family. As the leader of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, Dr. LaDon Swann has dedicated many years of oyster-related research as well as being a proponent of growing the State’s aquaculture industry. In the following pages you will learn about the Sea Grant’s significant role in the development and evolution of this exciting new industry.

When we moved to Alabama, did I ever imagine the little boy held tight on my lap as we plowed through Mobile Bay’s waves would grow up to become an oyster farmer? The answer is unequivocally NO. But today LaDon and I stand proud of our son, Gage, who has a bright future ahead of him, harvesting an oyster bounty, carving out a life on the water, and keeping our plates full of the succulent, Alabama grown oyster. My heart is happy

Alabama Current Connection
Spring 2020 Vo. XIV, Issue 1

The Oyster: An Icon of Life on the Alabama Gulf Coast (PDF, 6.2MB)


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