Off-bottom oyster farming has promise for Mississippi

Off-bottom oyster farming has promise for Mississippi

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - The Mississippi oyster season closes Thursday, and it’s been a rough one.

There is a new idea that could help change the oyster industry and provide fishermen with a new alternative. Here’s the kicker: with this program, oyster season is all year long.

The off-bottom oyster farming program, which started in June, is now in its training phase with about 14 students. It involves commercial fishermen as well as restaurant owners.

“Hopefully, it’ll pay off,” said Than Nguyen as he worked his floating baskets of oysters. “This is just a test trial right now. The real numbers will come at the end of the test season and see how much we really got and how much we lost.”

The process basically works this way: some baskets are free floating. Others are attached to lines. That keeps them off the bottom. That’s important because that protects them from predators. It also makes a higher quality product.

“To me, personally, down here, the oyster down here is way better than the east coast,” Nguyen said.

The Department of Marine Resources provides classroom instruction and equipment for training. The project was paid for in part with federal funding from the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality under the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act of 2012 (RESTORE Act).

The oysters are courtesy of Auburn University.

Once the class is over, the students will have to buy their own equipment and can lease up to two acres of space from the state for their own commercial farm.

“One of the main benefits is that our site at Deer Island, the oysters can be harvested year-round because it’s an improved area, and the farmers can control their harvest,” said DMR oyster extension agent Jason Rider. “That means they can harvest when they want to, when restaurants or businesses demand it.”

So far, the only down side is that the farming is labor intensive.

“You have to tend to your oysters throughout the year and throughout the crop,” Rider said, “but they do demand a higher price point once they come to harvest.”

Jerry Johnston Jr., owner of The Fillin’ Station in Biloxi, is also a participant, and he’s planning to add an oyster bar when it’s harvest time.

“With the-off bottom, it’s really nice,” he said. “The oysters aren’t muddy; they’re nice and clean. They’re always singles, and it’s really a new market for Mississippi that we’re trying to tap into. It’s a lot like the craft beer markets.”

There are 75 acres permitted for off-bottom aquaculture.

Rider expects oysters to be harvested in early to mid-2019.

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