Oysters are an essential part of a healthy estuarine environment. As filter feeders, they can remove a variety of impurities from the water. A single oyster can filter 50 gallons of water/day. A healthy reef may have 200 or more oysters/m2. Such reefs provide habitat for a wide range of fishes and invertebrates such as crabs and shrimp. A combination of overharvesting and habitat degradation has resulted in drastic reductions in oyster abundance. According to MS-AL Sea Grant, “Mobile Bay oyster reefs are at about 5% of historical levels”.  Similar trends have been seen throughout the coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico. The loss of suitable habitat results in a decline not only in oysters but also other important organisms.  Little Lagoon fish, shrimp and crab populations are in decline per Alabama Department of Conservation monitoring data. To stop these declines additional appropriate habitat is needed. The oyster gardening efforts of the Little Lagoon Preservation Society are a step in that direction. Not only do the gardens provide habitat, they increase public awareness of the need to improve the environmental quality of Little Lagoon.

Oysters produced by Little Lagoon Preservation Society are helping Alabama Department of Conservation efforts to restore Mobile Bay oyster populations and providing valuable filtration and habit benefits. Starting in 2017, each year the Lagoon Oyster Gardening Program kicks off by recruiting gardeners in the Jan-March time frame. Gear is ordered and paid for by LLPS and by grants from folks like COGS, Republic Services and Baldwin County Sewer Systems. Gardening gear is ordered and delivered in the April-May time frame. PJ Waters with MS-AL Sea Grant conducts seminars on oyster gardening in general and the finer points of gardening and cage maintenance.  “Baby” oysters are delivered, usually around the first week of June (temperature dependent), and the oysters grow and mature until the November-December time frame.  Sometime between early November and early December, volunteers pick up the 2-3” oysters and they are transported to the Auburn Shellfish lab for distribution via boat to closed reefs in Mobile Bay. The restoration locations are selected by the Alabama Marine Resources Division.

First year (2017) under the new program, 23 gardens produced 25,228 oysters despite two tropical events and 20” of rain in June.  Second year (2018) the program nearly doubled in size and 43 gardens produced 46,631 oysters. Third year (2019) 48 gardens produced 53,460 oysters.  Collectively, the 125,319 Lagoon grown oysters provided not only filtration and habitat benefits for the Lagoon, but also helped restore 6.26 acres of closed public reefs in Mobile Bay. Restoration benefit for the 2-year effort is $127, 091. Soon, the program will expand to produce millions of restoration oysters thanks to an oil spill fine money grant to the COGS.  The grant will be administered by the COGS, PJ Waters and AU.

This is a very popular program with potential difference making benefits for the Lagoon and Mobile Bay.  It is also an exceptional outreach tool for area residents and Gulf Shores High School (GSHS) science students. People seem to love gardening oysters even though they can’t eat them. GSHS students learn about and get “fired up” about doing something meaningful for the environment. It is personally quite gratifying to witness oyster growth and each garden/cage teems with small fish, shrimp and crabs. Some people visit and talk with their oysters daily. Please, if you are not gardening, have a pier on the Lagoon, and want to make a difference in Little Lagoon water quality and habitat, please sign up to garden. If you live on the lagoon and have a pier but cannot provide the attention that a garden would need, it is possible to provide volunteers to assist you. If you do not live on the lagoon but want to participate in the program as a volunteer or as a financial supporter there also are several opportunities.  For further information about the oyster gardening program contact Dennis Hatfield at scoopsinc@gulftel.com for program details and/or to sign up.

For additional detail on the gardening program/process see https://oystergardening.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/2019-AL-OG-manual.pdf.

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