Oyster Beds Suffer Serious Damage From Hurricanes

Associated Press Writer

Oyster reefs in Alabama suffered severe damage from Hurricane Ivan’s wave surge, which flushed out an estimated 80% of the $4-million crop and disrupted the livelihood of some 200 oystermen.

“These reefs belong to everybody in the state when you consider all the restaurants that benefit from the shellfish,” said Avery Bates, vice president of the Organized Seafood Assn. of Alabama. “It hurts so bad.”

He said some oyster fishermen have moved to Mississippi, which like Louisiana had less Ivan damage. Florida, battered by four hurricanes, suffered damage to some oyster reefs.


The reefs were the hardest-hit among Gulf states, said Vernon Minton of Gulf Shores, chief of the state’s marine resources, who estimated that it could take two years to restore them.

The oyster reefs could be partly restored through a $9-million U.S. grant for rehabilitation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will determine how the funds will be distributed in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Replanting of shell on the reefs is not expected to happen until spring. It takes between 18 and 36 months for a young oyster to regenerate to harvest size, said Leslie Craig, a marine habitat restoration expert at NOAA.

To reseed the reefs, Craig said, Alabama will probably use large-scale deployment of shells with high-powered hoses off barges. Fishermen could assist by reseeding shallower areas.

At Dauphin Island, state Marine Resources biologist Mark Van Hoose said divers, staking out yard-length grids, measured the reefs for productivity in August, then again after Ivan hit.

An Auburn University shellfish project at its Dauphin Island lab also is helping with some reef losses. In the wake of Ivan, marine biologists have dropped some 55,000 fingernail-size oysters on the Cedar Point reef.


That’s a small contribution compared to the hundreds of thousands of oysters washed away by Ivan. But the juvenile oysters planted were surplus oysters from a research project into low oxygen-tolerant oysters, said Rick Wallace, director of the university’s Marine Extension and Research Center in Mobile.

“With the storm, it just seemed like a good opportunity to help the industry,” he said.

Most of the donated oysters will be mature enough to spawn in the spring. They are highly prolific reproducers, with one female releasing millions of eggs in a spawning season. Minton says it’s hard to estimate how many eggs will survive because oysters have a high mortality rate. Oysters may spawn in the Gulf in all but the coldest months.

Ivan’s Sept. 15-16 storm surge flushed out an estimated four-fifths of Alabama’s 4,000 acres of reefs; only about 10% of Mississippi’s 12,000-acre crop was lost.

Shellfish manager Mark Berrigan at the Marine Fisheries Department in Tallahassee said Florida has reef damage from hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, but an estimate of the total oyster loss hasn’t been made. He expects to find moderate damage in the Panhandle’s oyster-rich Apalachicola Bay and more severe damage west of the bay.

Mississippi’s shellfish director, Scott Gordon in Biloxi, said his state’s reefs took a pounding from the winds when Ivan reformed in the Gulf as a tropical storm after slamming the Alabama-Florida coast.

Patrick Banks, biologist supervisor for Louisiana’s oyster program, estimated that about 20-30% of oysters on the 900-acre Cabbage Reef were lost to Ivan. But the most productive reefs east of the Mississippi survived.


Deputy Regional Administrator Buck Sutter at NOAA’s Southeast Region in St. Petersburg, Fla., said NOAA would rely heavily on state officials to help the federal agency identify the percentage of damage for distribution of the reseeding grant.