Auburn University researchers are helping to ecologically restore and economically revitalize Alabama’s oyster heritage

Oysters have long been an important resource for Alabama’s economy.

But, along the state’s more than 50 miles of coastline, oyster reefs have been depleted in some areas during recent years, making shellfish habitat research a priority for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

By using science, experts are finding new ways to restore Alabama’s coast.

The Team

Oysters growing in an aquaculture tank for research. Photo via AUSL.

Oyster reef research in Alabama is led by the team at the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory (AUSL).

This station is located on Dauphin Island, where applied research is used to directly address hurdles and concerns of the aquaculture industry.

According to Alabama Extension Assistant Professor Andrea Tarnecki, this is a job that she enjoys doing every day.

My role as an Extension specialist is not only to survey stakeholders about their research needs, but also convey information back to those stakeholders,” Tarnecki said.

It’s a two-way communication system to figure out what they need and also being sure to get solutions back to them,” she added.

For example, if a farmer is having an issue with a mortality event, Alabama Extension can design experiments to determine the cause.

Solutions will then be provided to the farmer to circumvent the issue.

The Objective

One of the AUSL’s current projects is returning oysters back to Little Dauphin Bay, adjacent to Dauphin Island.

According to Tarnecki, this bay once harbored a healthy oyster population that supported the oyster harvesting community.

These reefs, like many others in Alabama, have experienced significant decline over the years.

By using aquaculture-based techniques to grow oysters in small clusters, researchers are returning oysters to Little Dauphin Bay to help restore the historical reefs.

There is more than one benefit to reforming Alabama’s oyster reefs.

By nature, mollusks such as oysters and clams are water-filtering organisms. They feed on the algae and bacteria that can also affect water quality.

Oysters are filter feeders, so they are able to filter algae from the seawater, allowing sunlight to penetrate deeper into the bay,” Tarnecki said.

In addition, oyster reefs provided extremely important habitat which supports recreational and commercial fisheries,” she explained.

She also said reefs have a direct relationship with beach erosion. Without their structure some shores may gradually erode, thus taking away valuable shoreline.

The Why

Alabama Extension’s goal regarding marine aquaculture is to provide unbiased, science-based information and research to benefit current and future generations.

Tarnecki said this is the team’s primary focus.

There are so many things that I love about this job and our research,” she said.

The oyster community is very tight-knit, so we have a great community to work with. In addition, we get to work with animals and interact with wonderful Alabama residents,” she continued.

The Extension team at the AUSL also provides valuable hands-on education opportunities for the next generation of researchers through internship and graduate programs.

This experience allows students from Auburn University to get their feet wet with dedicated aquaculture researchers.

I feel very blessed to be able to work with so many students and young individuals new to aquaculture,” Tarnecki said.

There is something special about bringing someone into the lab for the first time and showing them the organisms, how they act and their life cycle. You can just see it spark interest in those students’ eyes,” she concluded.

Tarnecki said inspiration is always the goal when working with students.

Despite the possibility that the student may not continue learning aquaculture sciences, their time spent with Extension and the AUSL provides them with the knowledge to act as stewards for everyone outside of the lab.

The Experts

Alabama Extension on the coast has roles with research and through outreach, taking scientific information directly to the people of the region.

By conducting workshops and school programs to address seafood safety and other topics, Extension finds a way to educate many area residents, improving their lives and the communities in which they live.

Historic photo of Dauphin Island oyster harvesters courtesy of Dauphin Island History.

See Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory website.

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