At 6 a.m. on a summer morning, Becky Cornelius and her husband, Troy, are already on the water to tend to their off-bottom oyster farm in Portersville Bay, nestled against Alabama’s coast. The bay is buffered from the Gulf of Mexico by a barrier island, where longleaf pines poke out of the shoreline. The curve of the bridge to Dauphin Island hangs on the horizon.
Becky drives the boat and Troy hops in the water, swimming between the rows to unclip plastic cages that hold about 125 oysters each. He throws them on the deck to sort, then replaces them with a bag of “seed” — nearly 300,000 tiny oyster larvae — before he slips the cage back underwater.
This work, called off-bottom oyster harvesting, differs from the rest of the couple’s commercial fishing business. Becky’s family built their careers catching fish, shrimp, and wild oysters from the Gulf of Mexico and selling them in a shop in nearby Bayou La Batre.
“I think they probably rolled their eyes at first — pretty much the same way I did,” Becky said. “But now there’s no bottom oysters left. So if my parents want to eat oysters like they used to, this is the way to do it.”
Wild oysters are traditionally tonged from natural reefs built over generations. They’re shucked, mixed, and sold to a distributor for a set price, usually on the same day. But in recent years, a small aquaculture industry — around 15 sellers — has blossomed on Alabama’s coast, in part to address the declining wild oyster population after decades of overharvesting, pollution, and reef damage. Climate change effects have compounded the seafood industry’s problems, in part fueling stronger and more frequent storms and flooding that can lead to major freshwater influxes from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.
In Alabama and along the coasts of Mississippi and Florida, fishers are being trained in aquaculture to help them sustain their livelihoods in the seafood industry. “The demand for oysters has only gotten better since we’ve been doing this,” Becky said, adding that their company, Portersville Bay Oyster Company, is consistently selling out of farmed oysters, which can go for up to twice the price as wild ones.
Oysters are harvested year-round, but especially in the winter when commercial fishers aren’t catching shrimp, mullet, or snapper. The Gulf has lower salinity levels from freshwater flows and warmer temperatures, meaning that oysters are large and grow quickly. The Gulf Coast region still produces the most oysters in the U.S.; it brought in about $90 million in 2016, according to NOAA.
Traditional wild oysters start out as larvae attach to a hard surface like the shells of older oysters, rocks, or piers, forming oyster reefs. But in the last decade, Alabama’s wild oyster reefs in Mobile Bay have declined by 80% — a sliver of the bounty from decades prior. According to records compiled by AL.com, in 1928 around 27 million oysters were pulled off the reefs of Mobile Bay and the surrounding areas.
Most wild oysters in Portersville Bay, the site of the Cornelius farm, were harvested within a few years, but overharvesting to meet increasing demand was only part of the problem. Then came the loss of habitat: in the 1940s, construction companies began dredging ancient oyster reefs for shell to make concrete, which muddied the water and killed seagrass, sending the oyster population into sharp decline.
Fossil fuel industry development has also had major consequences. The Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010 killed an estimated 8.3 billion oysters in the Gulf of Mexico. The federal settlement with BP set aside $160 million for Gulf oyster restoration, but nearly a decade later, funds are just now being dispersed to Gulf Coast states. More hurricanes and storms like Hurricane Michael, which hit the Florida seafood industry hard last year, are causing major setbacks for the industry.
During the 2018 season — which lasted only a week — Alabama’s wild harvest yielded only about 13,600 live oysters. Last November, state officials made an unprecedented move and called off the wild oyster season. “I don’t think there’s anything there for you,” Scott Bannon, the director of the Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, told a small group of fishermen at a community meeting.
Environmental groups have proposed ideas for natural reef restoration as well as aquaculture, which the Gulf Coast’s warm bays and inlets are well suited for. Oysters can go from seed to market in a year, which is faster than New England, said Dr. Bill Walton, an Auburn University marine scientist. Since 2010, he has led an annual oyster aquaculture training course for fishers, and preference is given to those already in the seafood industry.
Troy Cornelius signed up for a training class in 2014, and over a few days, was taught how to pick a farm site, grow oyster seed, and maintain the operation, including the importance of salinity levels. Participants were given 10,000 oyster larvae, some gear, and a small plot in a designated training area.
“My best hope for it was that we could provide an alternative way for people to live and work on the water,” Walton said.
Troy and Becky leased out a section of Portersville Bay for their farm. The first few seasons were challenging, as the lease area closed several times from freshwater contamination. But soon, their company started charging more and courting high-end buyers throughout the Southeast. Four years later, it’s paid off as a way to complement their commercial fishing income.
“A lot of the restaurants around here, they’re used to getting just cheap bottom oysters,” Becky said. “We had to convince the buyers and distributors that these little Gulf oysters were good.”
Lane Zirlott, a third-generation fisherman, was working on his family’s shrimp boats until he joined the 2012 aquaculture class. The Zirlotts now have the biggest farm in Alabama — Murder Point Oyster Company in Bayou La Batre — which has three million oysters in the water and an oyster hatchery. Zirlott attributes some of the success to the farm-to-table restaurant boom, and his oysters are on menus from Atlanta to Austin.
“We want to be in that high-end, white-tablecloth restaurant,” he said, like Kimball House in Atlanta or Compère Lapin in New Orleans. Zirlott learned how to alter the taste of the oyster by changing the location of the cages to get different salinity levels, and has begun oyster breeding to increase production and have control over the size, shape, and texture of oysters. “It just kind of took off. We hit it just right. I haven’t seen a shrimp boat since.”
But aquaculture “is not a silver bullet,” said Auburn’s Walton. Farmed oysters could be lucrative for Alabama, but they likely won’t make up the gaps in wild oyster harvesting. The industry is out of reach for many people in the seafood industry: the startup costs are between $50,000 to $100,000 per acre. Some fishermen say that if there were subsidies or loans available, starting an oyster farm might be more feasible. One Maryland program offers low-interest loans for farmers, but most federal and state grant money in Gulf Coast states goes toward large research projects — not small businesses, Walton said.
Still, coastal areas are growing their programs. Tallahassee Community College in Florida has run its own oyster aquaculture training program for six years. Ryan Bradley, a fifth-generation fishermen who runs a local seafood industry organization in Long Beach, joined Mississippi’s first class of aquaculture training in 2018 after the state leased out an 80-acre site in the Mississippi Sound, just off the coast.
“The farms are supposed to be our safe haven to get away from all the disasters,” Bradley said. But 2019 has again been a tough year. Record flooding on the Mississippi River prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to open the Bonnet Carré Spillway west of New Orleans twice, something that has only happened 12 times in its 80-year history. Freshwater poured into the Gulf for 118 days, with high concentrations in the Mississippi Sound. Louisiana and Mississippi soon reported high oyster mortality rates on the wild reefs. By June, Mississippi’s new aquaculture farms had lost nearly all of their oysters, too.
These freshwater surges and more record-breaking heat waves raise questions about the future of the aquaculture industry. When the spillway closed in late July, Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith proposed a bill to allocate funding to compensate commercial fishermen for their losses, since they don’t have access to the same Department of Agriculture funds that Midwestern farmers do.
The industry is also researching how to make oysters adapt to changing conditions. The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages federal grant funding, including BP settlement funds, awarded a five-year grant to researchers from Texas to Florida to study oyster genetics. It includes a project on the potential for oyster hatcheries to select oysters from areas with different conditions — higher and lower salinity, warmer or cooler temperatures — and to customize oyster seed.
“It may be that we can develop some oyster lines that are more tolerant of lower salinities and would do better as we do population rebuilding of our wild oysters as well as encourage more aquaculture,” said Steve VanderKooy, the commission’s aquaculture coordinator.
For the Corneliuses in Alabama, that future doesn’t seem out of reach. Their growing season has been good this year, and they’ve hired a crew of teenagers to learn the trade by helping lug cages and sort oysters. A few of them are from families who had to leave the seafood business after the oil spill.
As the morning air turned hot and the sun beat down on the boat, Becky picked a few farm-grown oysters off the deck and shucked one to eat. It was mild and creamy, with a touch more salty brine. She knows there’s not much reef left for the oyster shells to attach to, but she threw the empty shell back in the water to settle on the muddy ocean floor beneath the farm, just in case. She likes to think the wild reefs might return.
Audrey Wilson is a journalist based in Washington, DC. She grew up in Daphne, Alabama.