Zhen Tao, PhD student of Dr. Cova Arias, was awarded the outstanding international student award presented by the International Student Association and the Graduate School. Tao was selected among all international students within the College of Agriculture as the overall outstanding international student. He received his award from Dr. Joe Molnar in a banquet at the Student Activity Center on April 25, 2013.
Offshore Innovation: How Point aux Pins Highlights the Alabama Oyster
It was Shakespeare who first penned it.
“The world’s mine oyster / Which I with sword will open”—a phrase that has come to signify endless opportunity.
For Dr. Bill Walton, the oyster is his oyster.
Walton, assistant professor and marine fisheries extension specialist at Auburn University, is a pioneer of sorts when it comes to the oyster industry. Walton is advising and working with independent oyster farmers to implement an off-bottom farming technique that yields some of the finest premium oysters on the Gulf Coast.
Walton’s most successful oversight is the Point aux Pins oyster farm in Grand Bay, owned and operated by Steve and Dema Crockett. With Walton’s help, the Crocketts have crafted a premier oyster that’s getting a lot of attention. And thanks to Bon Secour Fisheries in Bon Secour and Crimson Bay Seafood and Johnson Sea Products in Bayou La Batre, Point aux Pins oysters can be found on restaurant menus throughout the state.
But for Walton and the Crocketts, success didn’t happen overnight.
Walton, a native of New Jersey, began independently farming oysters in Cape Cod after finishing his PhD at the University of Maryland and working related jobs for several years. “For us, it was a labor of love,” said Walton, who tended the farm with his wife, Beth. “We’d work the farm on the weekends or on very early or late low tides.”
The Waltons grew Bee’s River oysters, which they would sell to restaurants in Boston and Cape Cod. But Walton spent his work week as the Marine Fisheries & Aquaculture Specialist for Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and Woods Hole Sea Grant, where he provided academic expertise and applied research to industry representatives, resource managers and the general public.
So when it came time to find a more suitable home for his growing family, Walton began looking for a new job. That’s when the Gulf Coast began calling his name.
“With two young boys, Beth and I were having a hard time finding a home that we could afford,” Walton said. “I saw an advertisement for a position with Auburn University Department of Fisheries & Allied Aquacultures—and the work looked a lot like the work I loved.”
It did not take much convincing for the Waltons. “I interviewed, and my wife and I fell in love with the Gulf Coast,” said Walton, who began working in January of 2009 at the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory on Dauphin Island.
But these days, Walton has become rather famous for his passion project: getting a new “blue green” industry started in Alabama’s coastal communities, where oyster farmers are cultivating the highest quality oysters imaginable such as those grown at the Point aux Pins farm. And their particular off-bottom method, one that Walton and the Crocketts adopted from Australian oyster farmers, has been gaining plenty of attention from the Alabama Gulf Seafood community.
The idea behind the off-bottom method is a simple one: juvenile oysters (provided by the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory) are loaded into wire baskets that remain underwater yet suspended above the ocean floor. This system raises the oysters above the water about once a week, which allows the air and sun to kill undesirable organisms like barnacles and seaweed that can affect the growth of the oysters.
Of course, this technique has its drawbacks, the biggest being a lower quantity when compared to commercial oyster fisheries. “This method of oyster farming doesn’t produce the quantities of oysters that nature can,” said Walton. “Oyster farming won’t compete with our local oyster fishery, where the vast majority of those oysters are sold by the sack.”
It is also not the least expensive method of cultivation for those who are new to the world of oyster farming. “There are certainly significant start-up costs,” said Walton. “Someone doing this has to be prepared to make an investment.”
But the benefits are many. Off-bottom oyster farming allows the oysters to grow faster with a higher chance of survival. In addition, without the threat of bio-fouling, the oysters grow and excel in a way that nature simply would not allow.
And the flavor? Well, you have to taste them to believe it. Point aux Pins oysters are sold live and in the shell for a premium price to high-end restaurants and oyster bars, and they’re popping up on menus like Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, in Montgomery, and Compleat Angler along the Alabama coastline.
But Point aux Pins oysters are not just another entry into the premium oyster market—as Walton notes, the Crocketts are building a brand.
Thanks to a mixture of salts, nutrients and phytoplankton (that grow naturally in the area), oysters take on the flavor of the seas where they are grown. This means that oysters grown in different regions have their own unique taste. When grapes take on the flavor of the earth, this event is called “terroir”—so oysters experience what Walton calls “merroir.”
“Branding is simply taking the idea of ‘merroir’ and formalizing it,” said Walton. “Each Gulf oyster, like each East Coast oyster, has its own taste. Oyster farms tend to provide a more consistently flavored product, since they are all raised in the same area.”
With this in mind, the future for the Gulf oyster industry is bright.
“We’ve seen an oyster renaissance in the U.S.,” said Walton. “Oyster bars in Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas and so on have embraced the idea of having oyster ‘menus,’ where they might offer over a dozen appellations. We’re seeing restaurants and raw bars start to embrace this idea of branded oysters. This is an opportunity for the Alabama oyster industry to add our own ‘product.’”
That’s why he is working to secure an oyster farming enterprise zone in Portersville Bay. There, Walton and his associates, along with help from Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant and funding from National Sea Grant, will train individuals who are interested in starting up their own oyster farms and continuing to promote and brand premium oysters.
“In Alabama,” said Walton, “I can see a day where we have Alabama oysters from Point aux Pins, Portersville Bay, Dauphin Island and Bon Secour Bay—each a distinct brand. How great would it be to go into an oyster bar and order three of each?”
At the end of the day, that’s what drives Walton and his teammates—helping to improve both the Alabama Gulf Seafood industry and the state’s economy as a whole. And because Alabama is historically the #1 processor of oysters in the U.S., this new oyster farming technique will only increase the economic impact of an industry that already accounts for hundreds of millions of dollars per year in Alabama.
“I really enjoy working on questions that matter to people who make their living on the water,” Walton said. “You can call it applied science, but I just consider it ‘putting science to work.’”
Researchers Aim To Make Fish Ponds More Profitable
Some 280,000 recreational fish ponds dot Alabama’s landscape, claiming close to 650,000 acres and providing a significant source of income as part of pay-to-fish operations and fishing resorts located throughout the state. Two Auburn fisheries scientists are in the midst of Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station–funded work aimed at helping pond owners improve the management and profitability of those ponds.
“Given that pond fishing businesses are most often found in some of the most economically challenged parts of Alabama, any support that can help them enhance their fish pond populations and attract more anglers would be significant,” says Rusty Wright, Extension specialist and associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures.
In the project, Wright and departmental colleague Dennis DeVries, professor, are specifically focusing on two management practices commonly used to improve the growth and abundance of largemouth bass and bluegill in recreational ponds. The first is stocking threadfin shad as a supplemental prey fish for largemouth bass; the second is adding pelleted feed for bluegill.
“These enhancement techniques are often used, but it is not consistently clear whether they work or how they act in a pond food web,” Wright says. “This research will help us make better science-based recommendations as to the addition of pellet feeding and the stocking of threadfin shad.”
For largemouth bass, the addition of threadfin shad as a prey species translates into a more abundant, calorically rich and easily caught food source, Wright says; however, shad species can have a negative effect on the abundance and growth of other prey species, such as bluegill, through competition for food.
To offset that competition, or to enhance ponds without shad, pond owners often feed the bluegill with pelleted feeds. Direct feeding of bluegill can improve growth and increase egg production. Plus, feeding in a specific location can lure bluegill to anglers.
In general, however, study of the potential impacts of pellet feeding has only been partially tested scientifically, and often
in laboratory settings. Wright says such research is best carried out in the field, where conditions are the same as those pond managers are going to experience. For their project thus far, he and DeVries have conducted a pond experiment at the E.W. Shell Fisheries Center and have sampled fish from established ponds at the fisheries center as well as some that are privately owned.
“We get a lot of questions about pond management, and our main goal in this research is to truly determine the efficacy of these practices, to refine rate recommendations for stocking and feeding and to understand how the enhancements work,” Wright says. “Our science-based assessment of pond enhancements should help pond managers avoid spending money on overfeeding or excess prey fish additions.
Congratulations to Dr. Bill Deutsch as we have just been notified that he was selected as the Water Conservationist of the Year by the Board of Directors of the Alabama Wildlife Federation. He will be recognized at the Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards ceremony on August 5th.
Sitting on the bottom of the sea 100 feet underwater in the Gulf of Mexico on a cloudy January day, three words come to mind: cold, dark, and lonely.
Think of sticking your face into a bucket of water and ice. Then imagine the water in the bucket is so dark you can scarcely see your hand on the end of your arm. Welcome to Steve Szedlmayer’s laboratory.
The professor, working out of Auburn University’s Department of Fisheries, has been studying red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico since 1990, a 20-year project that has required thousands of scuba dives and allowed Szedlmayer to keep tabs on some individual fish for years. It has also given him unique insight into the ecological impact of the hundreds of artificial reefs off Alabama.
“The basic message is that artificial reefs work. I never believed I’d be saying this 20 years ago. I thought it was a joke. We used to say, ‘Oh my, sinking another ship. Oh what a waste,” Szedlmayer said Thursday. “At this point, I’m convinced that they produce fish, rather than just attract fish.”
That conclusion is inescapable, said Szedlmayer, based on his studies of how long snapper stay on the reefs, what age they arrive at the reefs, what they eat, how quickly they grow and where they concentrate in the Gulf.
The task for Szedlmayer and two volunteer divers — Rusty Hensely and Keith Simmons — last week was to retrieve five expensive underwater receivers and install new ones in their place. The receivers were attached to anchors on the seafloor and suspended with floats so they hung about 15 feet above the bottom. They were designed to record the comings and goings of red snapper fitted with special transmitters on a small artificial reef 23 miles offshore. The
transmitters are surgically implanted in bellies of fish Szedlmayer catches with a rod and reel.
He has been using the array of receivers to track the activities of a group of snapper since August. His data is unique in the scientific world as it provides a 24-hour-a-day log of where individual fish are in relation to their home reef. He can also follow the travels of individual fish from reef to reef by tracking them in real time from the boat with a hydrophone designed to pick up the distinctive pings of the transmitters.
“The precision of the system is incredible. We can track these fish down to their exact position at every moment,” Szedlmayer said. “As far as I know, this system has only been used one other time. I think you will be seeing a lot of other people using it soon.”
Each of the five receivers can record about a million passes by fish. Szedlmayer said it takes about six weeks to fill up the receiver’s memory capacity. That leaves him with roughly 5 million data points to process, a rich trove of scientific information.
But that data comes at a price, namely monthly trips to the seafloor no matter how cold the ocean gets. Most people, scientists included, quit diving in the Gulf in November, when the water temperature drops into the 60s. By January, the temperature hovers around 59 degrees.
The first trick to changing out one of the receivers is finding it. The boat hovers over GPS coordinates associated with a receiver and two divers jump in, swim to the bottom and begin searching. One diver settles to the seafloor and holds the end of a length of rope. Holding onto the other end of the rope, the other diver swims in a circle around the stationary diver and hopes the rope catches on the anchor chain for the receiver. If all goes right, they can usually find the anchored receiver within a few minutes.
But for the diver sitting still and alone on the dark bottom of the Gulf, those can be long and lonesome minutes, with the only sound the gentle burble of exhaled bubbles rising toward the surface.
Szedlmayer has arrays set out on the seafloor in other areas as well, including in shallower water. While he said he can’t draw too many conclusions about the effect of the oil spill on the snapper population at large, he said his research did show that the fish stayed in place on their reefs even as oil drifted over them.
“We’re certainly hoping that we can do an extensive study of whether there was an oil effect or not. One of the aspects we did look at was the age zero fish. We’ve got a long term database on that,” Szedlmayer said, explaining that the young of the year typically settle onto small reefs during the summer.
He said the initial data suggests that there were not a lot of snapper on the reefs that were born this year. Part of the reason, he speculated, was that last year was an extremely productive year for snapper, meaning the reefs were full of 1-year-old snapper.
“The reefs are density dependent. If the house is already full, you can’t let anybody else in, and recruitment was so good last year,” he said. “But, we had cold water upwelling this summer. You had the oil spill. Then you had the extremely high number of age one fish this year.”
In the end, Szedlmayer said, it will take a lot of research to tease apart the effects of those influences. Even then, he predicted, it will be hard to determine what impact the oil spill had.