Alabama closes some oystering areas, sparking complaints

DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. (AP) — Alabama officials have closed some oystering grounds in Mobile Bay, prompting complaints from harvesters.

The move by the Alabama Marine Resource Division is part of a continuing effort to keep wild oyster reefs in the Gulf of Mexico from being killed by overharvesting.

The state closed the western half of its oystering area in Mobile Bay on Nov. 23, WKRG-TV reports, and closed two small but productive areas in the eastern half of the bay on Tuesday.

Meeting with oyster harvesters on Dauphin Island, AMRD director Scott Bannon said the closure was part of an effort to rebuild the state’s population of the bivalve.

“Unfortunately, there’s just not enough oyster harvest available to do a longer season and to maintain that,” Bannon told the television station. “We would love to do that. We’d love to keep Alabama product in the market longer; we would love for them to be working longer and making good money.”

Some harvesters say the state is cutting off their main source of income during the peak winter season for Gulf oysters.

“They shut us down all the time and there’s oysters out there and they won’t let us work them,” said Harry Harris.

Much harvesting is done from small boats, and oyster catchers say the water is too choppy for those vessels in the parts of Mobile Bay that are still open.

“A lot of small vessels can’t get that limit; they can’t even get out there,” said Michael Williams. “It’s too rough.”

Bannon said a new grid system implemented by the state is meant to keep small areas like the ones closed from being overworked.

The department opened Alabama’s reefs Oct. 3. It reported late that month that the number of harvesters seeking oysters had risen from last year and that 1,200 sacks of oysters per day were being pulled out of Mobile Bay, up from 800 a day last year. Oyster harvesters are limited to six sacks per day, each holding 85 pounds (39 kilograms). Bannon said those catching the limit can make $500 a day.

Other Gulf states have also imposed restrictions.

Mississippi allowed no harvest at all in 2021-2022 and has not announced an opening date for this year. That state’s oyster stocks, already in sharp decline, collapsed after the Mississippi Sound was swamped by Mississippi River floodwaters released through the Bonnet Carre Spillway in 2019. Heavy rains also dumped large amounts of freshwater into the Mississippi Sound in 2021, again upsetting the salinity needed for oysters to thrive.

The spillway release also led Louisiana to close public oyster harvests east of the Mississippi River from 2019 through 2022. Louisiana reopened those areas in October.

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