Will oyster industry rise again, 40 miles inland?

Hatchery technician Bradley DeLeon feeds algae to oyster spat at the Aqua Green oyster aquaculture facility near Perkinston.
Hatchery technician Bradley DeLeon feeds algae to oyster spat at the Aqua Green oyster aquaculture facility near Perkinston. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

If the Mississippi oyster industry rebounds from the disastrous past 11 years, its rebirth likely will begin in an out-of-the-way hatchery about 40 miles from the Sound.

The state hopes to buy Aqua Green — which Louisiana politician/businessman Walter Boasso started as a finfish hatchery in 2008 — with BP settlement and taxpayer money totaling about $10 million, according to the University of Southern Mississippi.

The university for more than a year tested the feasibility of converting Aqua Green to an oyster farm before committing to buying it.

“You only get so many bites of that BP apple, so before we wasted one of our bites we wanted to be sure we could do what we said we could do, said Gordon Cannon, USM vice president for research. “Once the funding comes through, we’ll build this out and increase our capacity quite a bit.”

USM has teamed up with aquaculture company Aqua Green LLC to start a facility to find a better way to raise oysters for commercial production. When USM gets BP Restore Act money, they will buy the facility in Parkinson and continue doing research

Oyster consumption has been in decline in the United States since the late 1980s, when the FDA first became aware eating raw oysters could be dangerous for people with weak immune systems. About a dozen people die each year after eating raw oysters. In Mississippi, the state Department of Marine Resources has regulations on how to harvest and handle raw oysters that are aimed at reducing that danger.

Only cooking, pasteurizing or irradiation can eliminate the deadly culprit, vibrio vulnificus, from oysters, but the FDA in 2009 — under pressure from the oyster industry — backed off plans to require any of those treatments.

Still, some companies treat them anyway. Crystal Seas in Pass Christian, for example, offers a line of Crystal Clear live oysters that have been irradiated, which means they’re treated with ionizing radiation that kills the bacteria without making the oysters radioactive.

In Mississippi, though, the problem is a lack of oysters, not a lack of consumers.

“We’ve gone from 400,000 sacks pre-Katrina to fewer than 20,000 sacks last year,” said Read Hendon, associate director for USM’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory and director of the Center for Fisheries Research and Development.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 scoured the reefs, and sucked all manner of debris and pollution into the Sound.

Five years later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig off Mississippi exploded, allowing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. A year later, when the Mississippi River threatened to flood a significant portion of southern Louisiana, the Bonnet Carre Spillway near New Orleans was opened, sending millions of gallons of fresh water into the Sound. The fresh water virtually killed Mississippi’s oyster reefs.

Katrina also made state Sen. Boasso something of a folk hero is his native St. Bernard Parish, where he ferried supplies, fought insurance companies and hollered and screamed to bring attention and help to his hometown of Chalmette and the rest of the parish lost in New Orleans’ shadow.

He was already a legend of sorts there, having started what would become Boasso America, a multimillion-dollar company, by scrubbing storage containers during summer vacations from college.

In 2007, he finished a distant second to former Gov. Bobby Jindal in the “jungle primary” with a tough-talking campaign funded mostly with his own millions. By the end of the year, he was out of politics, a Florida firm bought Boasso America, and Boasso was in Mississippi looking for his next big thing.

He had a farm full of exotic animals that he hoped would become an internet sensation through a virtual deer-hunting website that would allow people to tour his animal preserve without leaving their homes. It didn’t.

A BP opportunity

But by 2008, he had another interest, Aqua Green. And in the BP disaster, Aqua Green saw opportunity.

“This situation has created an opportunity for British Petroleum to transform a negative public perception associated with oil-spill cleaning operations to a restorative one while positively affecting the environment and economic profile of the northern Gulf region,” the company says on its website.

So why sell? Boasso isn’t saying and USM doesn’t know exactly.

“I think it is fair to say he was willing to sell it, but he wasn’t dying to sell it,” Cannon said. “He would have been perfectly happy to continue on, particularly when the oyster problem sort of bloomed.”

The purchase was proposed by Gov. Phil Bryant, USM said in a press release.

You have to help Mother Nature along sometimes.

Gov. Phil Bryant

“Another big piece of this is aquaculture,” Bryant said when he received the report from the Oyster Council he’d appointed to devise a path to his goal of a million-sack harvest. “You have to help Mother Nature along sometimes.

“We need to be aggressive. Mississippi has been, in my opinion, on the defensive. We’re getting ready to go on offense.”

USM says to reach that goal, it will have to grow 10 billion oyster larvae a year in the 47-acre aquaculture research, hatchery and nursery center.

“Those larvae will go to the state to assist the state restoration effort,” Cannon said. “We’ll get involved with fisheries, fishermen, oyster larvae for additional leases. Then we’ll get into oyster farming, off-bottom aquaculture and things like that. And there are larger-scale restoration projects that aren’t tied to the fishery. When you look at water-quality issues, having a source of oyster larvae for those projects is also very important.”

One thing Aqua Green won’t be doing is raising the oysters until they’re big enough to eat. When they leave the nursery, project manager Max Westendorf said, they’ll be about the size of a speck of pepper.

How to feed oysters

The problem is algae.

“We couldn’t produce enough algae here or on the Coast (at Gulf Coast Research Laboratory) to feed oysters up to a year, year-and-a-half to market size,” Hendon said.

The algae facility is the only part of Aqua Green reporters weren’t allowed to see.

“It’s a very clean room; no contaminants can come in,” Hendon said. “That’s where the algae starts. It starts in the tube. From there we take it into a larger tube, then a larger tube, then a larger container. Finally it’s in a tank where it goes to feed oysters.”

When the oysters are ready to move on, transportation arrangements are relatively simple.

“You can put them on a damp cloth, refrigerate them, and they can be shipped out anywhere,” he said.

And in the wild, or a farm, the oysters can live on just about anything. In one demonstration tank, they were attached to a PVC pipe.

“Given the right conditions, this would take 15 to 19 months to get to a harvestable size,” Westendorf said. “If you put them in (a bay), they’re going to eat 24 hours a day. They’re never going to stop eating.”

About Aqua Green

What: Nine buildings rated to withstand hurricane-force winds of about 130 mph that house research labs, aquaculture tanks and a nursery

Size: 99,000 square feet of enclosed space on 47 acres of land.

Where: About 20 miles southwest of Perkinston at 381 Old Highway 26

Firsts: It will be the first time oyster larvae have been grown in tanks with a recirculating aquaculture system that uses artificial seawater