Is There Any Hope For Gulf Oysters?

Err..ahem...not actually a Gulf oyster, but it's my photograph. 

Err..ahem...not actually a Gulf oyster, but it's my photograph. 

Yes. There totally is. 

Keeping tabs on the Gulf of Mexico oyster industry feels like watching a civilization crumble, like Rome burning or something. I suck at classics.

Here's this once great, seemingly unbeatable, and vast estuary. Beautiful. Productive. In the early 1900s, Biloxi, Miss., had already surpassed Baltimore as the busiest cannery in the U.S. Then the disasters set in, both natural and man made. Drought. Oil spills. Too-eager harvesting. 

In August 2014, NOAA declared the Apalachicola estuary an official disaster. It's not directly oyster related, but the Gulf's shrimp and long-line fisheries are considered the dirtiest around by one oceanic activist group. Do a bit of Googling and it gets much worse. There's also that rather famous, three or four decades long water battle between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.  

Texas oysters were done in this year by nasty drought:

"...the recent drought has meant less fresh water flowing into bays, which equals higher salinity, or saltier water. And while higher salinity actually boosts spawning, it also encourages the spread of parasites and disease, Robinson said. Because of the shortage, some oysters boats are harvesting undersized oysters."

Conversely, here in Georgia, as we faced that super-heavy rainy summer two years ago after 13 YEARS OF DROUGHT, some of estuaries, especially in Camden County, saw a major die-off due to all the fresh water coming down the rivers into the marsh. They've rebounded.

Also in Texas, a private company that is leasing the bottom of Galveston Bay to restore oyster habitat and then, yes, of course, harvest those oyster for commercial purposes, is facing a nasty public and legal battle. It'll be about specific oyster rights, and also about which agency, local or state, has the right to say who can legally lease acres to harvesters. 

Then there's the good news, sort of. Oyster landings in Mississippi haven't come close to returning to pre-Katrina levels, and Governor Phil Bryant is paying attention. He announced this week the creation of the Oyster Restoration and Resiliency Council, which has until May 1 to come up with recommendations of reversing the trend. There is already cultch work going on down there, which means setting out old shells into the water to make new reefs, but clearly that's not been good enough for commercial purposes, so the council will be looking at what options are feasible for the state. 

Plans are also afoot to pump over a hundred million bucks into a mega hatchery that will supply seed to oyster reefs around the Gulf. (More on that later.)

In Alabama, though, it's more rosy. Auburn University runs a shellfish lab on Dauphin Island, and they've been supporting a batch of oyster farmers in the little inlets outside of Mobile Bay, and those are already successful. Atlanta's top oyster spots like the Kimball House have been vocal supporters of Alabama oysters, and Auburn University and the state of Alabama have also backed these shell movements with strong marketing campaigns. I'm looking forward to visiting the shellfish lab and oyster farms like Murder Point in the very near future. What's happening there could happen here in Georgia very soon. 

Photo cred: Amy C. Evans

Photo cred: Amy C. Evans

There's also this: a bit of beauty rising out of the disaster. It comes in the form of a killer narrative from writer and artist Amy C. Evans. It's the story of Unk, a 73-year-old oysterman who's story reminds me of the old-timers sitting around the coffee shops of my hometown, Summerside, P.E.I. And this description of Unk's innate oystering abilities is also reminiscent of the men I've met on the Georgia coast. They are born marine biologists. It's in their nostrils, not research papers:

Unk may not have much schooling. He may not be able to read a menu at the local oyster bar. But after the day I spent on a boat with Unk and Gloria, looking for oysters that weren’t there, I can tell you what he does know: every single inch of the Apalachicola Bay. He recognizes every bump and crevice and soft spot below, feeling its topography like a blind man reads braille. He can tell the bay’s salinity by the smell of the air and the color of the water. Unk can look at landmarks along the shore to tell exactly where he is at any given moment. And he can look at a clump of mud and shells and know whether it’s going to be a good day or a bad one. 

I guess if there's something to take from this post other ALL IS HORRIBLY LOST, it's that there is a future for the Gulf oyster. It'll take smart people like Bill Walton, who runs the Auburn game, to have their methods widely disseminated. It'll take the next hard working generation of watermen like Unk to do things rather differently that their grandfathers and fathers did. If we want these salty treats in our restaurants, and we want people to make a living from the water, we'll just have to.