A new oyster farming initiative has launched in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
The goal of this effort, a collaboration between researchers from Louisiana State University and Auburn University, is industry adoption of off-bottom oyster culture to supplement the traditional harvest. Historically, oysters are grown on and harvested from reefs on the water bottom. In this new process, oysters are grown suspended in the water column.
Benefits of this new oyster farming technique include increased productivity; job creation; and continued production of a safe, sustainable domestic oyster supply, according to John Supan, Louisiana Sea Grant and LSU AgCenter oyster specialist, and Bill Walton, Auburn University aquaculture and fisheries specialist. Off-bottom culture also protects oysters from predators, provides a means to reduce fouling, and allows complete harvests of planted oyster seed, a major advantage over traditional oyster harvesting.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) is also working with researchers at Louisiana Sea Grant to support the off-bottom culture efforts. LDWF’s Fisheries Research Laboratory in Grand Isle, La., provides research and hatchery space to researchers from the Louisiana Sea Grant program. Department officials are also working local officials in Plaquemines Parish to develop plans for a facility, which would provide space for oyster spat, oysters in the larval stage, to develop before they are utilized by industry.
“This could be an important addition to a traditional coastal industry,” said Walton. “It’s clean, green and energy efficient. And, it provides business opportunities to those already in the oyster industry as well as other coastal residents.”
“Through proper planning, off-bottom culture can work in harmony with other water uses and users,” added Supan. “It can support both part- and full-time incomes, just like natural fisheries, but with greater control over the natural variability that dominates bottom harvesting.”
“Louisiana’s oyster fishery has been hit with major natural and man-made disasters in the last five years, and has grown wiser for it,” said LDWF Assistant Secretary Randy Pausina. “We are thrilled that Louisiana Sea Grant and researchers at Auburn University have worked so diligently to develop new methods for safeguarding and developing our oyster reefs along the coast. Our Department is going to work side-by-side with the industry and researchers to help ensure the success of our oyster fishery.”
Although this program was developed prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the oil spill prompted increased interest in oyster farming.
“We have received more calls and questions about oyster farming in the last four months than we have combined over the prior 12 months,” said Walton. “The spill has created a window of opportunity where traditional oystermen are eager, even desperate, to find ways to get back to working on the water as soon as possible.”
“Catastrophe causes change,” added Supan. “The challenge is to direct change to improve conditions, not to settle for status quo. This project will attempt do just that.”
Both the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory on Dauphin Island, Ala., and the Sea Grant Bivalve Hatchery at the LDWF Marine Fisheries Research Laboratory on Grand Isle, La., will provide oyster seed for this tri-state project. Program funding is provided by the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program and the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium.
A series of workshops are planned during 2011 and 2012, addressing issues such as appropriate culture systems, oyster seed stock, growing market-quality oysters, and developing practices and regulations in collaboration with state agencies. For more information, contact Supan at firstname.lastname@example.org  or Walton at email@example.com .
Since its establishment in 1968, Louisiana Sea Grant has worked to promote stewardship of the state’s coastal resources through a combination of research, education and outreach programs critical to the cultural, economic and environmental health of Louisiana’s coastal zone. Louisiana Sea Grant, based at LSU, is part of the National Sea Grant College Program, a network of 32 university-based programs in each of the U.S. coastal and Great Lakes states and Puerto Rico.
The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is charged with managing and protecting Louisiana's abundant natural resources. For more information, visit us at www.wlf.louisiana.gov  on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ldwffb  or follow us on Twitter @LDWF.