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Oysters Alabama Limit

Alabama to limit oyster harvesting, hoping to preserve fading reefs

After decades of year-round harvest with no limit on total catch, Alabama’s shrinking oyster reefs are under new management.

Going forward, state waters will be closed to oyster harvesting for four months each year, starting in May.

Once the season begins each September, only one of the state’s reefs will be open at a time. Also, state officials said, for the first time ever, the state will pay an oyster consultant to offer advice on how to manage the reefs.

“Anytime you leave something open for picking 365 days out of the year, you are asking for trouble,” said Stan Wright, the mayor of Bayou La Batre, owner of an oyster shucking business and the first person appointed to the newly created consultant post.

oystersWright said that he is paid $350 per day by the state, which amounted to about $17,000 in the last year.

“We’ve reached a point with our reefs where we can’t afford to make a mistake. Whatever we do has to work or we’re going to lose our oysters.”

Oyster reefs in Mobile Bay are a ghost of what they once were, and their decline has been cause for official concern for more than 100 years. As early as 1891, the state Legislature passed a law to “protect Alabama oyster reefs from being despoiled by canning companies of Mississippi,” according to a New York Times article from the time.

Many of Mobile Bay’s reefs have been nearly wiped away in the last 50 years, according to comparisons to 1960s-era state oyster maps. The oyster population has been devastated by a combination of uncontrolled harvest, the mining of oyster shells from the bay for use in making concrete and the recent proliferation of the predatory oyster drill.

Alabama’s oyster harvest was worth $3 million in 2005 but plummeted to $76,589 by 2009. Officials said they’re hopeful that careful management will allow the state reefs to begin to rebuild.

oysters mobile bay“The old system was not a system. What we’re trying to do is organize the oyster harvest, so it is not pilfered,” said Barnett Lawley, commissioner of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Toward that end, a new state law created check stations that oystermen must visit after each morning’s harvest.

“By doing this, we can see how many oysters come off a certain bed. The idea is to be able to control how many oysters are coming out of a certain area and close things before the reefs are damaged,” Lawley said.

The state also plans to try to restore some of its historic reefs. To do that, the bottom in those areas will have to be built up with a bed of shell and other hard material, raising oysters above the dual threats of silt and low-oxygen water on the bay floor. One restored reef opened today after the state spent $1.65 million to move oysters from upper Mobile Bay to an area near Fowl River.

Wright predicted that taxpayers would be able to see that the money had been well spent.

“The oysters have already increased in size. We’re going to have 100 percent accountability for all the money we spend bringing the oysters back,” Wright said.

“We’re no longer looking to take all that we can. We’re looking to have managed harvests and protect the long-term health of our reefs,” said Chris Blankenship, acting director of the state Marine Resources division. “We’ll close the reefs in the summer months to give them a chance to rest and rebuild.”

Blankenship said the state will send scuba divers to the reefs before an area is opened, then estimate how many sacks of oysters can be harvested. Officials will recheck the reef after the harvest, he said.

Ed Cake, an oyster biologist based in Mississippi, applauded the state’s approach.

“I think that sounds like proactive management, which is an improvement. The critical thing to do is take a look in a year and see if what they are doing is working,” Cake said. “And the other thing to remember is that the scuba diving assessments are only guesstimates because you can only examine a portion of a reef. It will be very important to take another look at the end of the harvest.”

The public is still allowed to harvest 100 oysters per person per day without a license, but only from open oyster reefs, officials said. Wright said the oysters are particularly plump and salty this year. 

Source:  Ben Raines, Press-Register

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