Saving The Gulf Of Mexico's Oysters

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And now to a big oyster problem in the Gulf of Mexico – from Florida to Texas, oyster populations are dropping. And in some places, they are at historic lows. It’s so bad that, in Alabama, this year’s public oyster season was canceled. Scientists involved in restoration efforts are now finding that what worked before isn’t any longer. So biologists are trying something new, as Mary Scott Hodgin of member station WBHM reports.

MARY SCOTT HODGIN, BYLINE: Off the coast of Dauphin Island, Ala., a team from the state marine resources division is in a small boat headed to a nearby oyster reef.


HODGIN: Winter is the ideal time to harvest oysters. And, normally, this bay would be crowded with fishermen. But on this day, the only boat is biologist Jason Herrmann. He leans over and throws a rusty basket into the water.

JASON HERRMANN: All right – I’m ready when you guys are.

HODGIN: It’s a spot survey to see how many live oysters are on the reef. Herrmann pulls in the basket and count shells. He doesn’t like what he’s found.

HERRMANN: Twenty-two half shells – nothing.

HODGIN: Twenty-two empty shells – no live oysters – it’s not a surprise. Alabama used to produce a million pounds of wild oysters every year. Right now, the state’s public reefs are closed and have been for months. Oysterman Phelan Ray Foster says he’s never seen it so bad.

PHELAN RAY FOSTER: I can remember when I was, say, 20 years old. I seen more oysters come off that reef in one day than what’s come off that reef in the last eight, nine years.

HODGIN: The decline is happening throughout the Gulf of Mexico. It’s particularly bad in Alabama. The state has invested millions of dollars in recent restoration projects, mostly with funding from the 2010 BP oil spill settlement. One of the most common techniques is to submerge old oyster shells and rocks to give baby oysters something to attach to, allowing reefs to replenish themselves. But biologist Jason Herrmann says it’s not working like it used to.

HERRMANN: The material that we put down is doing what it was supposed to do. And the problem is there’s such high mortality. And survival is just not happening.

HODGIN: He says there’s no one answer as to why. There have been hurricanes and drought. There’s pressure from development and overharvesting and potential long-term impacts from the BP spill. Whatever the reason, reefs in Alabama are not rebounding. So state biologists are trying something new.

MAX WESTENDORF: We’re walking into, right now, our fish hatchery.

HODGIN: Max Westendorf works at the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores. This will soon be home to a new oyster hatchery. The facility will grow baby oysters to be planted on wild reefs.

WESTENDORF: Well, everything’s reaching a big scale right now. You know, we’re looking at setting millions and millions of oysters, if not billions.

HODGIN: Similar efforts are happening in Washington state and the Chesapeake Bay. But it’s fairly new to the Gulf Coast.

Back on the water, biologist Jason Herrmann is hopeful.

HERRMANN: Everybody wants the – hey – what do you consider a successful restoration or something like that? And the best answer that I can give is, well, instead of five boats out here, I’ve got a hundred boats out here fishing for oysters.

HODGIN: If all goes well, biologists will plant the first oysters from the hatchery next year. For NPR News, I’m Mary Scott Hodgin on Dauphin Island, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.