Oyster gardening on Alabama coast catches on

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Larry Meese walked around a small tomato plot in his front yard and headed down a pier to his real garden — a wire cage of oysters thriving in waters near the mouth of Mobile Bay.

Meese began gardening oysters in 2001, contributing his crop to fisheries scientists who place them on small oyster reefs not being commercially harvested.

“I had eaten so many, I thought I should give some back,” the 68-year-old Meese said. “I’d hate to have all the reefs go away and not have that resource.”

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Aquaculture expert P.J. Waters of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System coordinates the oyster-gardening effort from June through November.

He said the goal is not so much stocking of reefs but teaching the volunteers, ranging from high school students to retirees, about marine life, while helping filter water and provide habitat for it.

There are similar programs in Maine, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia. Waters is looking into starting a possible program in Mississippi.

In Alabama, Waters said 34 volunteers, including Meese, last year grew more than 59,000 oysters — only a fraction of the total oyster population on state reefs.

Some 60 oyster-gardening volunteers had participated in earlier years before Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina destroyed many of their piers, Waters said.

But, he said, “the numbers are rebounding.”

Alabama has some 1,500 acres of commercial oyster reefs. The volunteers grow oysters off residential wharves in locations classified as conditionally open for shellfish harvesting.

Meese said he would be interested in knowing whether his oysters over the years have survived on the reef. Waters said they have not yet found a way to check survival rates.

Waters said while oyster growth in the 2008 gardening program was slow, the survival in the cages was better than anticipated, thanks in part to the volunteers who cleaned algae, mud and other foul material from the cages.

On his pier, Meese lifted a cage in need of a good cleaning and tiny fish, shrimp and crabs scampered out and fell back into the water.

Meese, who retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and moved to a bayfront retreat near Fairhope, said some of his neighbors along Baldwin County Route 1 also participate in oyster gardening.

The volunteers receive juvenile oysters, or spat, set on whole shell from the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory on Dauphin Island. They place the oyster spat in the cages at the beginning of the summer,

The oysters are held off the bottom to help water flow through the cage and bring needed food while protecting them from predators, such as the oyster drill, which resembles a small snail.

About once a week, he washes the mud off the oyster shells and shakes them to keep the shells from growing into the cage wires.

When ready, the fisheries scientists pick up the home-grown oysters and take them to the reefs. Waters, who usually has four cages, said he’s already recruiting volunteers for the 2009 oyster season in Mobile and Baldwin counties. Participants are trained at workshops in April and May.

There are plans to try to extend the growing season for gardeners where possible to increase the size of the oysters destined for reefs, Waters said.

The Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Auburn’s shellfish lab sponsor the program.