By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Harvest numbers for the 2020 Alabama oyster season, which ended on December 23, indicate the state’s oyster ecosystem is bouncing back in a big way.
That 2020 harvest of 22,000 sacks doubled the previous year’s harvest, thanks to improving conditions and a new method developed by the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) to determine when and where oysters could be harvested.
“I think it was a very successful season,” said Colonel Scott Bannon, MRD Director. “We think we are turning a corner on the things that we can control, which is the amount of harvest and the areas harvested as we work to rebuild our public reefs. As long as environmental conditions are favorable, I think we’re going to continue to see growth. With as many as 144 (oyster) boats on the water during a day, there was a lot of bottom that was turned, which is healthy for that reef by exposing shell and cultch material. When you don’t have harvest on a reef, you’re not exposing shell that may have been silted over. When you expose that shell and cultch material, it makes it available for spat (oyster larvae) to attach for future seasons. It’s that harvester’s circle. You work the reef; the spat sets and the reef expands.
“A lot of benefits came out of the harvest we had. It was a financial boost to the local economy, but also for the rest of the state and other areas that were receiving our oysters. It was a very desirable product.”
Bannon said the demand for Alabama oysters was high, not only because of their quality, but also because the only other Gulf state with a fully open oyster season was Texas.
“It was a high-value product for a limited availability due to COVID,” he said. “COVID still had a negative impact on the oystering because there are still places around the country that are not open to sit-down-style dining. That’s where oysters generally are consumed in the half-shell market. The quarts and gallons of shucked oysters still had a market in stores, but COVID did have an impact.”
Dana Harbison Taylor at Anna’s Oysters in Bayou La Batre, which has been processing oysters for 28 years from sources around the Gulf of Mexico, said the 2020 Alabama season was a welcome success despite COVID.
“This year I saw more boats, so more people were interested in catching oysters,” Taylor said. “And I saw larger oysters than last year, which means the oysters are growing. Also, I could also tell by how fast the oyster catchers were coming in. It shows how many oysters were there. They weren’t scratching, as we call it, trying to find oysters. They were catching them pretty fast. When the season kicked off in October, some of the seasoned catchers would be pulling up to the docks within 45 minutes to an hour. It was unreal how fast they were coming in.”
Taylor said the demand for Alabama oysters was excellent for a variety of reasons.
“People had a lot of interest in Alabama oysters because they have a meatier texture, so they were fatter,” she said. “They were salty. They have an all-around different taste. We have a lot of locals and businesses that requested Alabama oysters. We had a truck waiting on the catchers to bring the oysters in. We were determined to buy Alabama oysters.
“And the catchers were telling me the reefs are loaded with oysters. They said there were oysters everywhere. I think it’s awesome.”