Those who love to dine on Alabama’s succulent oysters are in luck. The state’s oyster season opened Oct. 3, and the oyster catchers are busy plucking those delicious bivalves from the reefs in coastal waters.
Scott Bannon, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Director of the Marine Resources Division (MRD), said both the number of catchers and sacks of oysters harvested per day are up from last season.
“To my knowledge, we had a record number of catchers for an opening day at 243,” Bannon said. “The max we had last year on any given day was 211. Last year, we averaged 180 catchers a day. This year, we’re averaging 220.
“The harvest is going well. We averaged about 800 sacks a day last year, and we’re averaging about 1,200 sacks a day this year.”
An average sack of oysters weighs about 85 pounds. Oyster prices are ranging from 75 to 90 centers per pound currently. Commercial catchers are limited to six sacks per day.
“The average is 5.7 sacks per day, so most catchers are getting their limit almost every day,” Bannon said. “Our preseason surveys gave us an indication that this year would be similar to last year. Last year we harvested just under 50,000 sacks total. It’s hard to predict how long the season will run and how many sacks we will allow for harvest. We’ll be doing weekly surveys on the reefs, looking at the material coming up to the decks of the boats. We’re looking at the cultch material, small oysters and the spat, which are the larval oysters.”
A harvestable oyster is 3 inches across its widest point. MRD Conservation Enforcement Officers use a 3-inch ring to measure the oysters. If the oyster passes through the ring, it is considered sublegal or undersized. If the oyster touches the sides of the 3-inch ring, it is considered legal to harvest. Catchers are allowed to harvest oysters from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the open season.
“We look at the legal-size oysters in the grid system,” Bannon said. “This is our third year with the grid system, which we use for reporting. We use the harvest per grid and look at the harvest from last year to tie all this information together to continue to maintain and grow the resource, but also provide an opportunity for catchers to make a living and provide product for the market.”
Last year’s season lasted 79 days, but the MRD does not use a quota to determine the closing date.
“We base it on how we survey the reefs with actual catchers out there working,” Bannon said. “With the grid system, the catchers are able to move into different areas that they haven’t worked before. Last year, they harvested just under 10,000 sacks off the east side in Mobile Bay. Our surveys, which are small, didn’t show we had that substantial a population in that area, but when the catchers got out there and started working, they found the areas where there were harvestable oysters, which is what we had hoped they would do. Hopefully, they will be able to move over there this year and possibly expand on it because they didn’t get over there until late in the season last year.
“I anticipate a season very similar to last year’s. The oyster catchers are providing very positive feedback about what they’re seeing and how they feel about the condition of the reefs. Those are good signs, but we’re still in a rebuilding phase. We don’t want to overharvest, but we want to maximize the opportunities.”
MRD is working on new technology to survey the reefs. The surveys consist of taking a one-square-meter grid on the reef and counting oysters and material inside the grid.
“We’re working on developing a mechanical arm to do the surveys,” Bannon said. “We will be able to do the surveys much quicker, which means we can survey more areas and identify areas that need cultch planting and areas with oysters that we will encourage the catchers to harvest. With the grid system, now we can tell the catchers the grids that have oysters. By next season, we should have that in place.
“We feel comfortable with the cultch material we have in place, but we will seek funding for more cultch planting to help expand the areas that have been productive the past couple of years.”
Alabama also allows recreational harvest of oysters with a 100-oyster daily limit per catcher. Recreational catchers must check in at the oyster management stations at Delta Port or the Cutoff Ramp across from Jemison’s Bait Shop on Dauphin Island Parkway at Coden.
Bannon said adult oysters can filter as much as 50 gallons of water per day, which means an abundant wild oyster population in Alabama is critical for water quality and provides crucial habitat for a variety of fish species and marine animals. Alabama oysters are also in high demand at restaurants and seafood outlets across the nation.
“Oyster taste is environmentally driven,” Bannon said. “Conditions are right in Alabama with the influx of freshwater that goes through Mobile Bay to mix with the salinity of the Gulf of Mexico. That makes for a generally tasty oyster. That’s why there’s such a demand for Alabama oysters, and we want to keep that product in the market as long as we can.”
More good news is coming from the coastal waters of Alabama with a rebound in the flounder population, which had suffered a significant downturn in the past decade.
Flounder season will be closed the entire month of November to both commercial and recreational harvest to protect the fall spawning migration. Several years ago, the bag limit was reduced to five per person and the size limit was increased to 14 inches total length.
“We’re going to take a look at our landings since we made management changes to look for indications of improvement,” Bannon said. “I’ve talked with local fishermen, and they felt like they had seen an increase in numbers. I use social media as my fishing barometer. You don’t take pictures of what you don’t catch.
“I’ve really seen a lot of great flounder catches. Those are good indicators of any of the species. While it’s not a scientific method, it helps us know what people are catching and seeing.”
MRD is raising flounder fingerlings from broodstock at the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores and releasing those fingerlings at various points in coastal estuaries. Bannon said that program continues, and MRD has provided special permits for several inshore tournaments to provide live flounder to be used for broodstock at the mariculture center.
“To exchange our broodstock to keep it genetically diverse, the best way to do that is to provide permits for fishing tournaments to harvest undersized flounder,” Bannon said. “Most males don’t reach the 14-inch size limit. Most of the legal flounder you catch are females. So, we provide the permits for anglers to bring in undersized and legal-size flounder alive that they would like to turn in. We provide a truck with tanks and members of our staff to collect the flounder.
“The anglers are extremely excited to participate. They feel like they are part of the process, and it’s the most efficient way for us to get broodstock from Alabama wild-caught fish.”
Unfortunately, one species that is not rebounding as hoped is the greater amberjack, and more stringent management measures are likely in the near future. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council) will meet Oct. 24-27 in Biloxi, Miss., to consider changes to the amberjack regulations that could include an increased size limit, slot limits and season date changes.
“Amberjack, for about 30 years, has been experiencing challenges,” Bannon said. “Previous management measures don’t seem to have moved us toward the goal of rebuilding the amberjack stock. At the Gulf Council level, it must consider adjusting harvest to meet the rebuilding goal by 2027. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, it’s going to take some substantial management changes to meet that goal. There will be a vote to go final on several amendments at Biloxi this month. That’s going to affect the harvest for commercial and recreational anglers.
“On the positive side, Dr. (Sean) Powers at the University of South Alabama is conducting a Gulf-wide amberjack survey, kind of a miniature version of the Great Red Snapper Count. We’re hopeful that we’re going to get some very helpful scientific management information out of that study.”
The current amberjack season runs through Oct. 31.
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.