An article from our Spring 2020 Alabama Current connection
|Alabama Current Connection
Spring 2020 Vo. XIV, Issue 1
The Oyster: An Icon of Life on the Alabama Gulf Coast (PDF, 6.2MB)
Our guest columnist is Gage Swann, a senior Management student at the University of South Alabama, who pays bills by working at the Mobile Oyster Company, an off-bottom oyster aquaculture operation in the salty waters on the west end of Dauphin Island.
Q: OK, senior at USA, former offensive lineman at Huntingdon College, and recently licensed charter boat captain Gage Swann, how did you become involved in off-bottom oyster aquaculture?
A: Before I got into all those other things you mentioned, I was just a Theodore High School graduate looking for a summer job while waiting for my first semester at Huntingdon to begin. My dad was actually the person who recommended me looking into working for an oyster farm. Somewhere along the search, I got in contact with a man who managed an oyster farm out in the Bayou (La Batre), back when there was a co-op of farmers out the mouth of West Fowl River. He lined up a training day for me, and from that moment, I have been working in off-bottom oyster aquaculture. Since then I have joined the team and am currently working for Cullan Duke at the Mobile Oyster Company.
Q: Describe a typical workday at the Mobile Oyster Company Company.
A: Our days at the Mobile Oyster Company usually begin around 8:00, when my buddy Aaron, other team members, and I meet to finish our morning coffee and discuss the goals we want to have accomplished for the day.
Sometimes we have a perfect day on Dauphin Island, and we use those days to maximize the work we do caring for the oysters on the farm itself. Every oyster farmer has a few basic obligations to the farm to grow and maintain beautiful oysters.
The most important obligation is making sure you have enough oysters counted and ready for a harvest. Having these bags already made up a few days before hand helps harvest run smoothly and in a quick time frame, which is really important during the summertime.
Another task we do on nice calm days would be desiccating our oysters (by raising and flipping our cages). During the summertime, it is recommended we do this once a week or at least once every two weeks. This practice dries the outside of our equipment and the oysters to limit any sort of biofouling. Biofouling is basically growth of barnacles and algae, on our equipment and oysters. Flipping the cages is the reason our oysters come out so clean with so few barnacles or other growth on them.
The rest of our time on these types of days involves us splitting bags of growing seed oysters (to reduce bag density), so that the oysters do not overburden equipment with their increasing size and weight. We also spend time hand sorting and counting oysters for our harvest bags.
During the wintertime, we get really strong north winds which makes working the farm in our location too much of a risk. We spend these days repairing any broken equipment, like worn down oyster grow cages for example, and also servicing our work boat.
Q: What’s tougher, a mid-July work day or an early February?
A: In my opinion, I would rather have a mid-July workday every day of the year compared to the mid- February work days! This has almost everything to do with the type of weather trend our location is subject to in the wintertime. During the wintertime of year, it is almost guaranteed the water will be in the upper 50s, and we usually have more strong north winds too. This makes the tasks of getting in the water
to tend our oysters and driving the boat very difficult and uncomfortable. By the time summer comes around, we definitely become very thankful for the usual southerly flows of wind and the warm water.
Q: With regard to environmental issues, what stressors to wild oysters are oyster farmers able to avoid or control? What stressors present the major threats to farm-cultivated oysters?
I'm no expert on what has happened to our natural oysters reefs over the years but I do believe off-bottom oyster aquaculture helps avoid some of the obvious things that hurts the natural reefs.
- Oyster drills (the primary oyster predator) usually are not that big of a problem for us because of the fact our oysters stay in the top of the water column, rather than on the bottom.
- We are also able to avoid any issues with sediment covering oysters during big storms or from boat wakes, etc., again because we are at the top of the water column.
As to stressors for oyster farmers-
- Hurricanes and strong storms. These storms have the ability to take a toll on oyster farms and the equipment itself. Even when farmers don’t sink their gear, strong storm surge and currents can bury our bags on the bottom and also chafe our main lines.
- Water quality. Things like red tides and shutdowns due to high counts of sewage-related bacteria in the water are also hard to predict and leave us idle for many weeks.
Q: As a student in management, what are the biggest challenges to managing an oyster farm?
A: I think finding the right workers who can handle the types of conditions we have to work in is sometimes our biggest problem. Currently we have a really solid team, which I am thankful for, but in the past good, reliable help has been hard to find.
Q: What is most rewarding about oyster farming?
A: I particularly like seeing our customers post pictures of our oysters on social media or hearing from people who say it is the best oyster they ever tasted.
Q: So, USA Management student, should I invest in Alabama off-bottom oyster farming A operations?
Yes. This is a young industry in Alabama compared to other coastal areas in America, but in my opinion, the Gulf Coast and especially the central Gulf Coast has some of the richest waters for growing oysters. From the time I started five summers ago up until now, I have seen a lot of industry growth in Alabama and more people willing to give oyster aquaculture a try. They are all good people who, I think, can really make a name for the Alabama oyster nationwide. And if this doesn’t sell you, just come on down to Mobile Oyster Company and try one yourself.
Download the full Alabama Current Connection Spring 2020 Vo. XIV, Issue 1: The Oyster: An Icon of Life on the Alabama Gulf Coast (PDF, 6.2MB)