Discover Coastal Alabama Winter/Spring 2019 - Page 10

Oyster Farming A New Approach to Harvesting the Bounty of the Bay I t’s not very original but to call Bill Walton the “oyster whisperer” cer- tainly seems to fit. While officially he’s an associate professor in Au- burn University’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture & Aquatic Sciences, he’s most often recognized as “Dr. Oyster”, the key instigator in establishing the oyster farming industry in Alabama and this stretch of the Gulf Coast. Bill and his wife, Bethany, moved to the Gulf Coast in 2009 when he accepted a job with the Auburn Shellfish Laboratory at the Dau- phin Island Sea Lab. He was immediately tasked with creating an environment that would support successful off-bottom oyster farming as seen in other parts of the country. The project faced two chal- lenges – solving production issues that impacted the economic feasibility and creating a market for a more expensive “custom” oyster. There are three phases to this process of oyster farming. Oysters start out as seed, in this case, most often produced in a hatchery at the Shellfish Lab. A cou- ple of weeks after spawning, these baby oysters are transferred to nursery tanks -protected from nature but with water A batch of native oyster ‘seed’, spawned for a research project working with local oyster farmers. Photo by Fernando DeCillis and provided by Alabama Cooperative Extension System. 10 DISCOVER COASTAL ALABAMA - WINTER/SPRING 2019 Bill Walton. Photo by Jeffery Etheridge, Auburn University Photographic Services. piped in from the Gulf in a continuous flow. After the oysters reach the size of a thumbnail, they are transferred to baskets or mesh nets suspended in the bay water – hence the term off-bottom. Bill and a few early pioneers, nota- bly the Crocketts from Point aux Pines in Bayou La Batre, experimented with “air-drying” the growing oysters - flipping their baskets out of the water – to allow them to burn off algae growth and other bio-fouling. This led to a short- er growth cycle with greater and more consistent crop yields. This hands-on manipulation also allows the farmers to direct the oysters’ shape and size by rotating the baskets and putting the oysters though a tumbling process that breaks off the edges. This stimulates the growth of a more compact oyster with a deeper bowl – one ideally suited for your favorite raw bar. Farmers like the Crocketts and Murder Point’s Zirlott family are quick to point out that their oysters are not competing with the traditional Gulf oys- ters but are adding a new gourmet layer to the market. As Bill Walton puts it: “I like Miller Lite and I like craft beer. I enjoy sitting at a picnic table and