Despite the dramatic growth of oyster farming across the US, in the Gulf of Mexico region, oysters are only farmed extensively, on bottom leases with the vast majority of production concentrated in Louisiana. Subject to environmental variability, the supply and quality of extensively farmed oysters varies widely. In contrast, oyster farmers using intensive, off-bottom methods focus on producing a steady supply of consistently premium oysters for the lucrative half shell niche market. A number of hurdles have hindered the growth of this industry within the region. As part of an expanding effort to overcome these hurdles for farmed oysters in Alabama and the region broadly, faculty at Auburn University are addressing the identification of possible niche markets, the potential for regional appellations as a marketing tool, and pre- or post-harvest treatments by the farmers to ensure food safety. In parallel with this effort, it is essential to provide beginning and prospective oyster farmers concrete, locally-derived quantitative production and economic data to address the where, what and how of oyster farming.
The goal of this work, funded by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, is to quantitatively compare oyster aquaculture practices at coastal sites in Alabama to determine the most viable combination of methods, providing guidance to current and prospective oyster farmers in the North Central Gulf of Mexico region. Specifically, working with three current Alabama oyster lease holders, we propose to 1) identify optimal sites for the nursery culture of hatchery-reared oyster seed along the Alabama coastline by deploying oyster seed at seven sites in the summer and fall of 2010 and 2011 to measure average daily growth and mortality rates, 2) compare the performance of native triploid (putatively sterile) oysters to half-sibling diploid oysters at the three lease sites planted in the fall and spring over 11-16 month grow-out periods to analyze differences in growth, survival, yield and condition index, 3) test and compare the effect of four different types of commercially available oyster culture equipment on oyster growth, survival and yield to market size (and the interaction of gear with ploidy) with oysters deployed in the fall and spring, and 4) determine the costs of production of the various combinations of production strategies tested here, and identify the least cost approach to intensive farming of oysters for each lease holder and prospective oyster farmers in the region.
This project relies on and promotes close collaboration with the industry participants and develops immediately applicable information (e.g., growth rates, mortality rates, costs of production, etc.) and ‘hands on’ experience. Additionally, the proposed project would create three working oyster farms along the Alabama coast, which can serve as demonstration sites for others in the region, supporting development of this industry broadly throughout the North Central Gulf of Mexico region.