BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala. — Is it oyster farming or oyster ranching?
Either way, scientists at Auburn University’s Shellfish Laboratory on Dauphin Island found that their work had taken on new relevance as the summer’s oil spill unfolded.
Oyster farming is popular in other parts of the U.S. but was never found economically viable in coastal Alabama. Now, Auburn’s Shellfish Lab, which has spawned larval oysters for years, is working with volunteers and leading experiments to see if such farming can take hold here on a money-making basis.
The farmed oysters wouldn’t supplant wild-caught oysters, but might supply a little extra income for the local area. Farmed oysters often wind up at the fancy raw bars in large cities, where perfectly formed oysters command top dollar.
At one demonstration site at Point aux Pines near Bayou La Batre, four rows of oysters — 200,000 in all — are suspended in wire cages in waist-deep water.
“These aren’t free-range oysters. I call it oyster farming but it’s almost oyster ranching,” said. Bill Walton, assistant professor in Auburn University’s Department of Fisheries & Allied Aquacultures and an Alabama Cooperative Extension System specialist.
“If there were any wild oysters living below the baskets, they’d be eating the same stuff, growing in the same water. They would taste the same. But the ones in cages are protected, confined. It’s like putting them in a pasture to eat.”
He added, “We don’t feed them, and we don’t medicate them.”
The oysters are hatchery-spawned from native Alabama oysters off Cedar Point and Heron Bay, then moved to the cages when they’re big enough to not fall through the mesh.
The idea of oyster farming became particularly attractive two years ago, when the population of oyster drill, a small member of the conch family, spiraled out of control in Mobile Bay.
In the wild, the predatory drills climb onto an oyster and secrete an acid as they simultaneously chew through its shell. Once in, they use their straw-like mouths to slurp up the succulent bi-valve.
As Walton was describing the drill to the Press-Register, he spotted one making its way across the dock where he stood.
The baskets halt the drills and also help defeat another stumbling block to oyster farming, called fouling.
Fouling involves mud, weeds and other biological elements clogging up the oysters, which can suffocate them or, at the least, make them less attractive.
To combat this, the farming baskets are hoisted once a week on their supports and exposed to sunlight for a few hours — long enough to kill the seaweed but not long enough to harm the oyster.
That ability to get the oysters out of the water might have proved useful during the oil spill, had oil shown up at Point aux Pines, Walton said.
“I was worried in May, not knowing what we’d see out there, but I was down here every week during the oil spill and we just never saw signs of oil up here. We didn’t get clobbered in the coastal waters the way we did on our beaches,” he said.
Nevertheless, the waters around the oysters undergo regular testing. Since oysters are eaten raw, they’re a priority on the public health radar.
Based on data recorded thus far, Walton said, the oil signature levels generally “aren’t even detectable.”
The oysters at Point aux Pines are grown in waters controlled by nearby landowner Steve Crockett. “We have had only compliments on the taste,” he said proudly.
Crockett noted that the experiment could eventually point the way to farming methods that could be managed by just two or three people. Also, he said, such farms could collect data that might prove valuable to the wild oyster harvesting industry.