Like forbidden fruit on a low hanging vine, The Nature Conservancyâs "living shorelinesâ shelter a cornucopia of seafood. While the murky water of Mobile Bay at Alabama Point may be uninviting to some, the shadows of fish can be seen darting back and forth beneath the waves. Stand still for a moment and crabs tap your toes. The oysters here are young but thriving, all thanks to an experimental habitat that alas, is not open for harvest.
From shore to shore, the bay used to be this plentiful everywhere, before sedimentation covered a more naturally hard bottom and choked out native seagrasses. Long before fishing had to be managed, Alabamaâs coastal waters were more like a submerged Garden of Eden. If you know your way around the recreational sweet spots or are lucky enough to catch an Eastern Shore jubilee, you still might be able to grab a freezer full of fish, shellfish and crustaceans, but commercially, the days of all-you-can-eat are long gone and wonât ever be back.
The blame can be placed on a host of conditions, from unchecked development to pollution and natural disease. But the fact is, coastal Alabama still has remarkably clean and fertile water compared to similarly impacted areas in the United States. With intent, work can be undertaken to at least maintain some of the existing habitat necessary for a healthy ecosystem and perhaps even restore conditions ideal for the historically bountiful seafood harvest.
Since 2010, TNC, in cooperation with a number of public and private agencies, has led an effort to install and monitor artificial, intertidal oyster reefs around the bay for exactly that purpose. Essentially, the reefs are composed of some hard structure â be it concrete, steel cages or mesh bags full of oyster shell â that are placed a few hundred feet offshore. Thatâs it.
While long-term results are still being monitored, TNC Coastal Projects Manager Jeff DeQuattro said within a day of placing reefs in Alabama Port and Porterville Bay south of Bayou la Batre, sea life was attracted to it. Two years later, data indicates one reef has far exceeded the projectâs target oyster count while the other is slightly behind, but still outpacing the productivity of commercial reefs further offshore.
"Here, we counted 60 oysters per square meter,â DeQuattro said, wading out to a reef in Alabama Point last week. "Our goal is 100 oysters per square meter. In Porterville Bay, our reef supports 200 oysters per square meter. Compare that to commercial reefs, which average 14 oysters per square meter.â
Despite the proliferation, DeQuattro is quick to emphasize the objective of the program is not to supplement the commercial harvest, or even recreational fishing. Instead, the Conservancy is hoping to determine the feasibility of deploying the structures en masse as artificial breakwaters to stabilize shorelines and protect sensitive marshlands. If they consequently attract oysters to reproduce, filter the water and create habitat for other species, thatâs an added bonus.
AN EXPANSIVE, EXPENSIVE PLAN
In a region that stands to reap a windfall of civil penalties from the BP oil spill, DeQuattro and other stakeholders are hoping the artificial reefs can demonstrate their value as both environmental preservation and economic development assets. The Conservancy used a $2.9 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 for the nearly 1.8 miles of reefs in Portersville Bay and Alabama Point, but since that funding was exhausted, a new effort has evolved with an even broader partnership.
The Nature Conservancy's Jeff DeQuattro stands inland of a living shoreline at Alabama Point in about nine inches of water. When the reef was installed, the water was about three feet deep.
Using a combination of private donations and government grants, the 100/1000 Restore Coastal Alabama project hopes to build 100 miles of artificial breakwater to create at least 1,000 acres of coastal marsh and seagrass. The effort has already funded two projects in Mobile and Baldwin counties, but could be substantially bolstered by the oil spillâs RESTORE Act money.
The three types of structure deployed as a part of the Recovery Act projects, blocks made of steel rebar, concrete reef "ballsâ and bagged oyster shells, cost between $199-$350 per linear foot. An economic study commissioned by The Nature Conservancy
suggests every mile of oyster reef breakwater can generate $2.9 million in revenue, create 38 jobs and add $970,000 of household income over 10 years.
The same study determined that a $150 million investment in the reefs would "increase revenue and sales of crab, fish and oyster harvests by $7.87 million yearly, save property owners up to $150 million on the construction of bulkheads, enhance yearly saltwater angler spending by $4.9 million and increase annual sales by $7.3 million in the commercial seafood supply chain.â But fully funding the 100/1000 initiative could cost nearly $300 million.
Dr. Just Cebrian, a senior marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, said as heavier regulations have been placed upon commercial fishing over the years, the focus has begun to shift from managing harvestable fisheries to protecting estuaries and inland habitats, where the lifecycle begins.
"Our estuaries used to be reinforced by these extensive intertidal oyster reefs,â Cebrian said, standing next to a live oyster reef aquarium inside Dauphin Islandâs Estuarium. "As the estuaries have declined, so has the fishing industry. The common language everyone speaks is money, so if you look at the role the estuaries play in providing for a more stable and robust fishery, you can begin to apply a quantitative value to the efforts to protect them.â
On the other hand, Chris Nelson thinks $300 million is a lot of money for an experimental project that hasnât really been tested. As a fourth-generation seafood processor and part owner of Bon Secour Fisheries, Nelsonâs ancestors built their business on the harvest of Baldwin County oysters. While heâs generally supportive of the 100/1000 project, he questions whether it can do enough to combat the magnitude of a coastal erosion problem he says starts much further inland.
"I donât know if itâs going to help but it sure wonât hurt,â Nelson said. "A lot can be done with that kind of money and the oyster industry up and down the coast has been supportive of erosion control efforts, but itâs equally or perhaps more important to focus on what is coming down the rivers and streams.â
Nelsonâs family began harvesting oysters in Bon Secour Bay in the 1800s. Sometime in the 1950s, Nelson said they began to notice a change in the bottom of the bay and harvesting profits quickly dried up. Today, a true Mobile Bay oyster is a rare find and processors on both sides of the bay largely import oysters from elsewhere along the Gulf Coast. So if youâre eating an oyster in a local restaurant, chances are it took a road trip to get there.
A two-year old oyster growing inside of an older, inanimate oyster shell that was used within an artificial reef.
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, Alabama produced just 295,980 pounds of oysters in 2011. Alabamaâs harvest was slightly more than Mississippiâs, but a drop in the bucket compared to the 2.9 million pounds harvested in Florida, the 3.9 million pounds taken in Texas, or the 11 million pounds of Louisiana oysters that dominated the Gulf market that year.
In Alabama, the 2011 harvest was only a third of what was harvested in 2005, but was also a recovery from the three previous years, which saw just 72,000 pounds harvested in 2008, 22,000 pounds in 2009 and 67,000 pounds in 2010. Those setbacks were attributed to the residual effects of hurricanes Ivan and Katrina combined with an explosion in the predatory oyster drill, an industry foe that tends to proliferate in saltier drought conditions.
Disasters that have affected the Gulf seafood industry inevitably prompt the federal government to respond with subsidizes for itâs recovery, but at the same time, a vastly disproportionate amount has been allocated to researching and developing its long-term sustainability. Thatâs another reason DeQuattro and TNC are hoping to prove the real value is not what is living on or around their artificial reefs, but what is building behind them.
At Alabama Point, the water between the beach and the reefs was three feet deep when the project was installed in 2010, DeQuattro said. Today, itâs about nine inches. The beach is growing.
PLANT A SEED, WATCH IT GROW
Chris Nelson also lobbies on behalf of Gulf seafood and said heâd like to see a portion of the RESTORE Actâs money steered toward the enhancement of natural reef processes and the development of domestic aquaculture. Where other countries have invested and capitalized on extensive aquaculture industries, the United States has generally dragged its feet. But so far as shellfish are concerned, thatâs beginning to change.
Within an hourâs breaststroke of the Portersville Bay reef, Bill Walton, an assistant professor and marine fisheries extension specialist at Auburn University, has helped develop an off-bottom oyster farming technique specifically adapted for coastal Alabama. Walton said the burgeoning industry isnât meant to compete with existing oyster harvests, but rather is intended to open it up to a different market.
"Off-bottom oysters are more of a boutique oyster, served live in raw bars for premium prices,â he said. "These are a different product than what most oystermen harvest; oysters for shucked meat.â
With one private farm in state waters fairly well established and others under different stages of development, Walton said profitable shellfish aquaculture has the ability to change the perception of the Alabama oyster industry. In Grand Bay, Point aux Pins, LLC, raises boutique oysters for some of the regionâs most acclaimed restaurants. Last year, they also began supplying Whole Foods Markets in the Southeast.
Walton, who was an independent oyster farmer in the Northeast before assuming an academic career in Alabama, said shellfish aquaculture isnât a "get rich schemeâ and the state still has a lot to be desired in its permitting process. But he said it might appeal to people who live along the coast and have a little capital and a lot of work ethic. Heâs currently scheduling instructional classes for people whoâve held commercial seafood licenses for at least three years, but hopes to eventually offer guidance to inexperienced investors as well.
"You really just need the oyster riparian rights or the ability to lease from someone who does,â Walton said, ticking off a list of regulatory benchmarks that also have to be met. "Once permitted, you need gear, which is a big stumbling block because it costs a lot of money and oyster seed, which Auburn can provide.â
Auburn University marine scientist Dr. Bill Walton surveys oysters on a breakwater on Dauphin Island. Walton has helped develop a shellfish aquaculture technique for Alabama waters and hopes to see the industry grow.
Walton said the typical investment would be $10,000-$20,000 per acre, with the ability to harvest as many as 100,000 oysters per acre within the first two years. With the ability to wholesale for as much as 40 cents per oyster, the return on investment isnât enormous, but can easily "pay the bills and get the kids through school,â Walton said. With a large enough industry, there would also be opportunities for supporting businesses like a commercial hatchery or equipment fabricators.
On the retail side, Point aux Pins oysters regularly command upwards of $1.30 each at Whole Foods. Nelson said there is nothing in the industry now that would prevent the prices of oysters going even higher, whether they are farmed or traditionally harvested.
"I think the days of quarter oysters at happy hour are over,â Nelson said flatly. "Maybe if we have bumper crop, but lately itâs been more of an issue of getting enough oysters to sell. So theyâve morphed into 50-cent oyster nights. But if you go to the east or west coast, youâre fortunate to get any half-shell oysters for a dollar.â
In that respect, Nelson believes environmental efforts like living shorelines would be wise to incorporate commercial harvesting at some point.
"Some people say if you allow industry to harvest a protected reef there will be more pressure, but thatâs why we have management,â he said. "A harvested reef is just as productive and just as much a contributor to the ecosystem and actually has an immediate economic incentive to grow. If youâre saying the oysters are providing an ecosystem service and thereâs an economic incentive but at the same time saying we canât be extractive, youâre arguing yourself into a corner.â
Walton can understand both sides of the argument, but vouches for protected reefs, at least in their infancy. What canât be argued, he said, is that the habitat has been degraded for years and would take an enormous, ongoing effort to restore even incrementally.
"What Iâm doing, what Jeff is doing and what fisheries is doing is like an investment,â he said. "I consider all three the âOyster Restoration Portfolio.â There are different investments with different returns, but if you think of restoration as long term, management as midterm and culture as short term, itâs probably good to diversify the portfolio because nature is nature and it will inevitably throw different things at different times. You donât want all your eggs in one basket.â
In an unbiased, unsolicited opinion, Kristen Dumont placed a call to Lagniappe last week, coincidentally on the day after DeQuattro led us on a tour of the Alabama Point reef. As an Eastern Shore resident with waterfront property, Dumont was concerned that the coordinators of the Pelican Point 100/1000 project didnât make much of an effort to communicate with neighboring property owners beforehand and then left it in a half-finished state. But upon learning of the projectâs planned completion date May 4 and how established reefs were progressing across the bay, Dumontâs own perception seemed to change.
"I wouldnât mind going on record to say the interim communication was poor, however Iâm all for the project,â Dumont said, noting that she was impressed by the other 100/1000 project in Dog River. "With the [reefs] being new, it really kind of puts the area on the map as an environmentally forward-thinking community. You hear about all the new, planned growth for Mobile but with any new projects, I think as long as they cross their âTsâ and dot their âIsâ, it would enhance our attractibility.â
Just as it took decades for the bayâs primary habitats to degrade, DeQuattro would caution against anyone expecting their restoration to occur overnight.
"You just donât put the reefs in the water and youâve done restoration,â he said. "Shoreline processes work slowly and while we may see early signs of improvement, weâre obviously going to need more time to monitor the progress and enhance the efficiency and deploy them with a more significant frequency.â
The Nature Conservancy, in cooperation with the Alabama Coastal Foundation, Mobile BayKeeper and The Ocean Foundation, is seeking volunteers to complete the artificial reef at Pelican Point beginning at 8 a.m. on May 4. More information about the project, the partnership and the technique is available at www.100-1000.org