Alabama’s shellfish aquaculture industry produces oysters (Crassostrea virginica) through off-bottom farming using an adjustable long-line system and floating cages. The first farm started in 2012, and although jobs have been created, the economic value has been limited. An anonymous survey of Alabama operators revealed the industry’s situation and outlook for the 2018 production year.
All survey values were compiled so individual responses would not be revealed. Total values were based solely on responses provided and, thus, may be underestimated. The survey was modeled after the shellfish aquaculture survey program conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Virginia Sea Grant and the Rutgers University New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station and New Jersey Sea Grant.
Highlights for 2018
- The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 22 commercial oyster aquaculture operations in Alabama, and 13 of these completed the survey.
- Farm gate value for Alabama oyster commercial operations was $1,062,473.
- Total number of single market oysters harvested in 2018 was 1,921,586.
- Oyster market prices realized for respondents ranged from $0.30 to $0.70 with an average price of $0.46.
- Operators reported 34 full-time employees and 30 part-time employees.
- There were at least 64 acres permitted for oyster aquaculture with at least 37 acres used in production.
The 2018 Alabama Shellfish Aquaculture Survey was conducted with the web-based tool Qualtrics. The survey was anonymous and did not track respondents’ IP addresses. An introductory email with a link to the survey was sent to all shellfish operators certified by the Alabama Department of Public Health. Two follow-up requests were sent to all respondents encouraging them to complete the survey if they hadn’t already done so.
Summary of Findings
Of the 22 oyster aquaculture operations certified by the Alabama Department of Public Health, 14 responded to the survey and 13 were complete enough to be included in this report. No other types of shellfish were reported as being farmed.
Hatchery and Nursery Operations
Three respondents reported combined sales of approximately 18 million seed.
Oyster Sales and Prices
There was a wide range of wholesale prices reported by farmers with a low price of $0.30 each to a high of $0.70 each. The average price was $0.46 each and the mode was $0.50 each.
The respondents reported 34 full-time employees and an additional 30 part-time employees. The 30 part-time employees averaged 19 hours per week, which equates to 14.25 full-time employees per year.
In 2018, the Alabama oyster aquaculture industry dealt with several factors that had negative impacts on profitability and sustainability of the industry.
- There were prolonged closures due to harmful algal blooms and rainfall in some of the growing areas.
A total of 101 days were not open to harvest in Alabama waters (see chart). Area II was closed 46 days.
- Seed supply transitioned from Auburn University Shellfish Lab to private industry. There was high demand for seed in the Northern Gulf late in the year, possibly due in large part to high mortality caused by Hurricane Michael’s effects in the Florida Panhandle.
- The Mobile Bay area has experienced more harmful algal blooms in recent years and the Bayou La Batre Waste Water Treatment Plant could eventually limit areas available for shellfish aquaculture.
Opportunities and Outlook
In 2019, Alabama oyster aquaculture likely will grow in number of operations and permitted acres for farming. There is also growing interest in commercial aquaculture under existing piers, which has an easier, less costly permitting process. Two new oyster farms began operation in 2019.
The Grand Bay Oyster Park (in Grand Bay on the Western side of Point of Pines) has more than 40 acres for off-bottom oyster farming and is managed by Alma Bryant High School.
The Bayou Sullivan Oyster Park has 20 acres available for commercial off-bottom aquaculture with some additional area being used for research by the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory (Alabama Shellfish Riparian Leases map shown above).
There is a strong demand for seed and eyed larvae. In addition to Alabama, growth continues in Florida and Louisiana, and new farms began operation in Mississippi in early 2019. Texas recently passed legislation to allow off-bottom oyster farming.
In this year’s survey, respondents were asked to identify both top opportunities for the commercial oyster industry and needs for their farms. For each of these, there was a wide range of responses. Commonly identified opportunities included the following:
- Marketing/market development (including expanding brands)
- Promoting innovations in gear
- Educating consumers and the general public
- Improving water quality
Top needs included the following:
- Finding skilled, reliable labor and improving efficiency with mechanization
- Protecting and monitoring water quality
- Having more available areas to expand farms
Respondents were also asked about what research and outreach the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory should do for the industry. Many research suggestions were made, but one respondent indicated that the area is over-researched. Listed are some of the common research priorities:
- Identify causes of mortality and reduce losses
- Improve genetic stocks through a breeding program
- Identify threats to water quality and improve monitoring and prediction of adverse events
- Assess effects of different gear types on growth and shell shape.
Survey respondents also indicated the following top outreach, training, and workshop needs for the industry:
- Guidance on gear choice and installation
- Assistance with marketing and possible direct sales
- Promotion of innovation and preparedness