Oyster reefs in Alabama suffered severe damage from Hurricane Ivan's wave surge, which flushed out an estimated 80 percent of the $4 million crop, disrupting the livelihood of some 200 oystermen who work the reefs in winter.
CODEN, Ala. - Oyster reefs in Alabama suffered severe damage from Hurricane Ivan's wave surge, which flushed out an estimated 80 percent of the $4 million crop, disrupting the livelihood of some 200 oystermen who work the reefs in winter.
"These reefs belong to everybody in the state when you consider all the restaurants that benefit from the shellfish," said Avery Bates, a Bayou La Batre oysterman and vice president of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama. "It hurts so bad."
He said some of the oyster fishermen have relocated to Mississippi, which like Louisiana had less Ivan damage. Florida, battered by four hurricanes, clearly suffered damage to some of its oyster reefs although just how severe a loss is still being assessed.
The reefs were the hardest-hit among Gulf states, said Vernon Minton, of Gulf Shores, chief of the state's marine resources, who estimated it could take two years to restore them.
Gulf states' oyster reefs could be partly restored through a $9 million federal grant for oyster-bed reseeding and rehabilitation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will determine how the funds will be distributed to affected areas in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Replanting of shell on the reefs is not expected to happen until spring. It takes about 18 months to three years for a young oyster to regenerate to harvest size, says Leslie Craig, a marine habitat restoration expert at NOAA.
To reseed the reefs, Craig said, Alabama will likely want to use some large-scale deployment of shells off barges with high-powered hoses. Fishermen could assist by reseeding shallower areas.
At Dauphin Island, state Marine Resources biologist Mark Van Hoose said divers, staking out yard-length grids, measured the reefs for productivity in August, then again after Ivan struck.
"The loss on Cedar Point is about 80 percent of oysters per acre," Van Hoose said. Cedar Point is the main reef near Dauphin Island.
An Auburn University shellfish project at its lab on Dauphin Island also is helping with some reef losses. In the wake of Ivan, marine biologists have dropped some 55,000 fingernail-size oysters on the Cedar Point reef.
That's a small contribution compared to the hundreds of thousands of oysters washed away by Ivan. But the juvenile oysters planted were "extras" -- surplus oysters from a research project into low-oxygen tolerant oysters, said Rick Wallace, director of the university's Marine Extension and Research Center in Mobile.
"With the storm, it just seemed like a good opportunity to help the industry," Wallace said.
Most of the donated oysters will be mature enough to start spawning in the spring. They are highly prolific reproducers, with one female releasing millions of eggs in a spawning season. Minton said it's hard to estimate how many of those eggs will survive because oysters have a high mortality rate.
Oysters may spawn throughout the Gulf in all but the coldest months.
While Ivan's Sept. 15-16 storm surge flushed out an estimated 80 percent of Alabama's 4,000 acres of reefs, only about 10 percent of Mississippi's 12,000-acre crop was lost.
Shellfish manager Mark Berrigan at the Florida Marine Fisheries Department in Tallahassee said his state has reef damage from hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, but an estimate of the total oyster loss hasn't been made. He expects to find moderate damage in the Panhandle's oyster-rich Apalachicola Bay and more severe damage west of the bay.
Mississippi's shellfish director, Scott Gordon in Biloxi, said his state's reefs took a pounding from the winds when Ivan reformed in the Gulf as a tropical storm after slamming the Alabama-Florida coast.
Patrick Banks, the biologist supervisor for Louisiana's oyster program, estimated about 20-30 percent of oysters on the 900-acre Cabbage Reef were lost to Ivan, probably from salinity shock. But the state's most productive reefs east of the Mississippi River survived.
"We have roughly 16,500 reef acreage in Lake Borgne/Mississippi Sound. Cabbage is 900 acres of that," he said.
Deputy Regional Administrator Buck Sutter at NOAA's Southeast Region in St. Petersburg, Fla., said oysters are a state resource. NOAA would rely heavily on state officials to help the federal agency identify the percentage of damage for distribution of the $9 million reseeding grant, he said.
"We don't have a clear picture on that," he said.
Source: Associated Press