There won’t be an oyster season on the Alabama coast in the coming year, an unusual move caused by what officials say is a lack of oysters in state waters.
Al.com reported Thursday that an official with the state conservation agency announced the decision during a meeting with seafood harvesters and dealers in southern Mobile County.
Mississippi’s season was set to open Saturday, but the Department of Marine Resources said Friday it will be delayed because of excessive rainfall. An opening date will be set after water samples meet the set criteria.
Oyster seasons have been closed in past years because of disasters including hurricanes or the BP oil spill in 2010, and the number of oyster boats working the area has been in decline. But Scott Bannon, director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division, said this year marked the first time there won’t be a season because of a lack of oysters.
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A weeklong season last year produced only 136 sacks of oysters, down from 7,000 sacks in 2013, he said.
The move means wild oysters won’t be harvested from state waters until at least the fall of 2019. The decision doesn’t affect oyster-farming operations.
Conservation officials make exploratory dives to determine how many young oysters are present on reefs, and a check this year showed only 112 3-inch oysters per acre in Heron Bay, less than half the number from 2017.
It’s unclear what has caused a decline. Jason Herrmann, a Marine Resources biologist, said 2017 brought extended periods of low oxygen and low salinity in coastal waters, making last year disastrous for young oysters called spat. A spat wipeout in one year means few growing oysters in the next.
Among oyster harvesters, theories vary about what has caused the decline. Some point at development along the rivers that feed Mobile Bay, some at agricultural runoff, some at the disposal of dredge material from work to deepen Mobile’s ship channel.
“To me it’s a culmination of a lot of things that happened,” said Mayor Terry Downey of Bayou La Batre, a seafood processing hub.
Ted Gillespie, 60, has been harvesting oysters since he was 20. He said he will have to do something else since there won’t be an oyster season this year.
“I’m going to have to figure out some kind of fish to catch this winter,” he said.
Sun Herald contributed to this report.