Hurricanes, Water Wars Threaten New High-End Oyster Industry on Gulf Coast
By Daniel R. Petrolia and William C. Walton
For Cainnon Gregg, 2018 started out as a great year. After leaving his job as an installation artist to become a full-time oyster farmer in Wakulla County, Florida in 2017, Gregg began raising small oysters in baskets or bags suspended in the shallow, productive coastal waters of Apalachicola Bay.
Raising oysters "off-bottom" this way takes a lot of time and money, but has a big potential payoff. They are destined for the high-end raw bar market, where offerings are denoted by specific appellations, like "Salty Birds" (Cainnon's oysters), "Navy Coves" (from Alabama) and "Murder Points" (also from Alabama), and can retail for twice the price of oysters harvested from traditional on-bottom reefs.
When Hurricane Michael made landfall at Mexico Beach, Florida, on Oct. 10, it dealt a devastating blow to this nascent industry. Preliminary reports indicate significant damage and heavy crop losses. Raising oysters by any method is not an easy job, but if off-bottom farming can become established along the Gulf Coast, it could give the industry a much-needed boost, give consumers more choices, and provide a new stream of environmental benefits.
The U.S. produces multiple species of oysters, but historically the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) has accounted for over 70 percent of total harvests. The Gulf Coast generally accounts for 80 percent of those, with production generating $1 billion in annual revenues.
Louisiana is the national leader in oyster production, with a handful of other states vying for second place, including Washington, South Carolina and Texas. However, when states are ranked by value per unit—that is, total value over total landings—states like Massachusetts, Maryland and Virginia dominate.
This is partly due to regional differences in how oysters are grown and marketed. Traditional harvesting of oyster reefs on the sea bottom still dominates in the Gulf region. These oysters are generally sold as a commodity, appearing on menus as simply "oysters" or "Gulf Coast oysters."
Elsewhere, most oysters come from off-bottom farming and tend to be marketed under the names of specific reefs, growers or appellations. Off-bottom oyster farming has been a major driver in the growth of marine aquaculture production nationally.
Oysters are grown in cages at Island Creek Oyster Farm in Duxbury, MA.MA Office of Travel and Tourism / Hanks, CC BY-ND
The Gulf's first commercial off-bottom farms started up in Alabama and Louisiana in 2010. Today more than 50 farms are operating in Florida, Alabama and Louisiana, with permits pending for others in Mississippi. Harvest data are limited, but in Alabama alone, eleven farms collectively reported nearly $2 million in sales in 2016. In recent years Alabama has ranked among the top five states in per-unit value.
Reasons to Diversify
Raising off-bottom oysters is good for more than oystermen's bottom lines. Oysters improve water clarity by filtering out phytoplankton, thereby removing nitrogen from the water column. They also provide forage grounds and habitat for fish and act as breakwaters, protecting nearby shorelines.
Off-bottom farms deliver the same types of benefits as traditional on-bottom reefs, although in slightly different ways and at different times, depending on local conditions and farming methods. In our view, raising oysters in multiple ways is beneficial because it avoids putting all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak, and makes the industry more resilient.
We come at this topic from different perspectives. Daniel Petrolia focuses on the economics of coastal resources and natural hazards. William Walton directs Auburn University's Marine Invertebrate Fisheries, Restoration and Aquaculture Lab. We have worked together since 2011 to better understand oyster habitats, evaluate market opportunities and identify and tackle challenges for the new industry. Disaster preparation and recovery clearly are top priorities.
We see off-bottom oyster farming as especially interesting economically, given its novelty on the Gulf Coast, the new market opportunities it affords growers and the diversity it brings to the Gulf Coast's oyster habitat "portfolio." It also offers new choices for people who like to eat Gulf Coast oysters.
Panacea Oyster Co-op overview youtu.be
Natural and Man-Made Disasters
Hurricanes and storms pose serious threats to the Gulf oyster industry. They can harm reefs by burying them in sediments or drastically altering water salinity.
Storm impacts tend to be highly localized. Prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mississippi was the fourth-largest oyster-producing state in the nation. Katrina slashed the state's output by 80 percent that year, and fishermen were unable to harvest oysters at all in 2006. Production recovered somewhat over the next several years, but Mississippi harvests have remained around one-tenth of pre-Katrina levels.
Louisiana, whose oyster reefs lie just west of where Katrina made landfall, saw just a 6 percent drop in production following Katrina. The impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster were shorter-lived, but Louisiana's 2010 harvest was cut in half due to precautionary closures during and after the spill. Oysters were also killed by releases of fresh water from the Mississippi River, which were conducted in an effort to keep oil out of coastal estuaries.
Storms are not the only threat. Florida and Georgia have been fighting for decades over allocating water from the Apalachicola River; when Georgia draws a high level of water, it reduces freshwater flow to Apalachicola Bay, which can lead to increases in oyster mortality from predation and disease. And harmful algal blooms, such as Florida's massive 2018 red tide outbreak, can close waters to harvesting.
@SCOTUS ruled on the #Georgia #Florida #WaterWars. Who won? Well, no one really. The case was remanded to the inves… https://t.co/RWwTRZSyuZ— Grant Blankenship (@Grant Blankenship)1530114847.0
Beyond direct impacts on oyster farms, Hurricane Michael damaged state laboratories that conduct water quality testing required to re-open waters to harvesting. Testing delays could lead to prolonged closures and even affect areas not hit by the storm. Michael also disrupted red tide sampling in several Panhandle counties. In Gulf and Escambia counties, red tide concentrations actually increased in late October.
Farmers will be looking for more oyster seed—the small oysters that they need to restock their bags and baskets. This could drive up demand and strain the industry's capacity. Unlike crop farmers on land, oyster farmers cannot buy subsidized insurance to help them with losses of oysters and gear, so those who suffered heavy damage will be challenged to rebuild their operations.
Hurricane Michael failed to break up the red tide outbreak along Florida's west coast. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Not an Easy Business
As we write, oyster farmers in the Panhandle are still inspecting their farms for damage and seeing how their oysters fared. Some estimate that they may have lost 60 to 90 percent of their crops.
Oystermen have strategies for dealing with hurricanes, such as sinking baskets loaded with oysters to the bottom before the storm arrives. But they can only reduce risk, not eliminate it. The threat of rising sea levels and more intense storms will force them to continue adapting and improving their strategies.
Earlier this year, Cainnon Gregg started selling "Salty Birds" to some of the finest oyster bars in the South. Two days after Hurricane Michael passed through, he was back on the water checking lines and making repairs. "There's nothing easy about any of this, and all you can do is get back out here and get back to work," he said. He could have been speaking for all Gulf oystermen.
#Louisiana Faces Faster Levels of Sea-Level Rise Than Any Other Land on Earth https://t.co/zCuAWpcH7U @NRDC @RobertKennedyJr @Waterkeeper— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1483558863.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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