Gulf Oystermen Get Innovative: Nontraditional Farming Approach Takes Root

by / Louisiana Seafood News on December 15, 2010

By Veronica Del Bianco

Researchers have launched an innovative oyster-farming initiative in the northern Gulf of Mexico that promises to increase production and open up entrepreneurial opportunities for oystermen.

Historically, oysters are grown on and harvested from reefs on the water bottom. But the new oyster-farming technique grows oysters suspended in the water column, increasing productivity and offering entrepreneurial opportunities.

Though the program was developed well before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it was the oil spill that sparked interest in a water-column approach.

It’s not hard to understand why: For Louisiana oystermen who have been hit with both natural and man-made disasters in the last five years, the ability to limit the variables that affect their oyster harvest is an attractive advantage of off-bottom culture systems.

The technique also enables people to oyster farm in areas where a traditional bottom harvest is impossible — over sand, for example.

“We have received more calls and questions about oyster farming in the last four months than we have combined over the prior 12 months,” says Auburn University aquaculture and fisheries specialist Bill Walton.

“The spill has created a window of opportunity where traditional oystermen are eager, even desperate, to find ways to get back to working on the water as soon as possible.”

Walton is part of a collaboration between researchers from Louisiana State University and Auburn University. The alliance is hoping for industry adoption of off-bottom oyster culture to supplement the traditional harvest.

“This could be an important addition to a traditional coastal industry. It’s clean, green and energy efficient. And, it provides business opportunities to those already in the oyster industry as well as other coastal residents,” says Walton.

John Supan, Louisiana Sea Grant and LSU AgCenter oyster specialist.

How exactly does it benefit the industry? In plenty of ways, according to John Supan, Louisiana Sea Grant and LSU AgCenter oyster specialist. It increases productivity, creates jobs, and allows for the continued production of a safe, sustainable domestic oyster supply.

Off-bottom culture also protects oysters from predators, provides a means to reduce fouling, increases oyster growth rates and allows for pruning, which results in oysters with fatter meat. Perhaps its biggest advantage over traditional oyster harvesting is that off-bottom culture allows harvests of planted oyster seed.

Although this program was developed prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the oil spill is what prompted increased interest in oyster farming.

“Catastrophe causes change,” added Supan. “The challenge is to direct change to improve conditions, not to settle for status quo. This project will attempt do just that.”

A series of workshops are planned during 2011 and 2012, addressing issues such as appropriate culture systems, oyster seed stock, growing market-quality oysters, and developing practices and regulations in collaboration with state agencies.

Both the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory on Dauphin Island, Ala., and the Sea Grant Bivalve Hatchery at the LDWF Marine Fisheries Research Laboratory on Grand Isle, La., will provide oyster seed for this tri-state project. Program funding is provided by the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program and the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) officials are also working with local officials in Plaquemines Parish to develop plans for a facility, which would provide space for oyster spat, oysters in the larval stage, to develop before they are utilized by industry.

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