USA: The state is already planning to invest BP settlement funds in restoring coastal revenue, and the University of Southern Mississippi is playing a big role in making that happen.
Nearly two years ago, Gov. Phil Bryant formed the Oyster Restoration and Resiliency Council to study how the state could revitalize its once-prolific oyster harvest. The outcome of the study combined with a chance opportunity to conduct research at a privately held facility in Stone County landed Southern Miss a grant for $7.7 million of BP money to acquire the Aqua Green hatchery facility in Perkinston. An additional $3 million will be provided by the Legislature.
"That's a fascinating facility," said Rep. Brad Touchstone, R-Hattiesburg, who has toured the facility. "I think that is a worthy investment because it is a new technology that I believe will protect that particular economy going forward, with hurricanes and the like always being a probability. It's definitely forward-thinking."
The private hatchery was built about eight years ago, originally designed to find a way to mass produce/aquaculture game fish like cobia or pompano — marine fish that are high value. But that kind of aquaculture on a large scale is still not feasible.
"It's still going to require much more research," said Gordon Cannon, Southern Miss vice president for research.
Realizing this, Walter Boasso, chief executive officer of Aqua Green, contacted the university to see what the two could do in partnership.
Cannon said that was about the same time Bryant introduced opportunities for the state to help bring back the oyster industry, which has seen a tremendous downturn since disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 oil spill have caused a lot of damage to the oyster habitats and populations in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Before Katrina we were doing a half-million sacks per year, and I think last year we did something like 40,000 sacks in one year," Cannon said. "And from what I understand, talking to the old folks along the Coast, oysters have always been the base for our seafood industry."
Fast forward about two years and Southern Miss is ready to roll full speed ahead to continue its research on the coastal oyster population and efforts to mass produce oyster larvae to repopulate depleted oyster beds.
The oyster council, which included about six members from Southern Miss, in determining its findings looked into the issues and examined other areas that had some success with growing their oyster populations, including Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and areas of Washington state.
"What was essential, the council concluded, to all of those was having an oyster hatchery that you could count on for a good supply of oyster larvae, both for restoration of the natural oyster reefs off the Coast and also to use as seed for people maybe who wanted to get into off-bottom farming," Cannon said.
Stone County's economy also will benefit from Southern Miss' involvement with the facility and implementing growth at Aqua Green.
"We are certainly excited about having this expansion in Stone County," said Betsy Rowell, executive director of Stone County Economic Development Partnership. "The investment is important. We have existing capacity at the Aqua Green facility in our own backyard, that fact adds to the concept that there are tremendous resources in south Mississippi’s rural communities, in particular Stone County.
"We believe future expansions in aqua research are certainly possible here."
Having the oyster aquaculture and research facility so far from the Coast may not seem to make sense at first, but there are two good reasons for having it there, Cannon said.
Aqua Green officials wanted to make sure the facility would not be vulnerable to most hurricane-force winds, and researchers make their own sea water, which eliminates the likelihood of developing issues that would harm the larvae, such as red tide or changes in salinity from heavy rain or man-made issues.
The half-million larvae the university already has produced have gone through various trial runs using artificial seawater and recirculating aquaculture systems, which is the first time both components have been used for oyster larvae aquaculture on a potential production scale.
“We are excited to have the opportunity to be at the very foundation of applied research and development and using it to address a real-world problem to benefit the state of Mississippi,” said Read Hendon, associate director for the university’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory and director of the Center for Fisheries Research and Development. “This work positively benefits the Coast economy and ecology by putting quality oysters back into the Gulf ecosystem, replenishing reefs, stabilizing shorelines and providing quality oysters for the seafood industry.”
Last year the council recommended purchasing the facility, but Southern Miss officials suggested trying it out for a year to see if it would actually be something that would support the research and serve as an extension service, with a goal of generating 10 billion larvae a year.
“Oysters have long been an important part of the heritage and ecology of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and we look forward to continuing to make advances to increase production numbers and improve efficiencies in order to help restore this important resource,” Hendon said in a news release.
The pilot studies showed the work could be done, Cannon said.
"It's been exciting times since then because there's all sorts of things that we want to do in terms of research," he said.
Some of the research includes finding substrates — surfaces — for the oysters to grow on in the wild, Cannon said. Researchers with the university's materials and polymer science department have ideas they're putting together for artificial cultch — what oysters need to grow on. Cultch is generally made from broken oyster shells, rocks and sand.
The university also has partnerships with groups in Florida that mine cultch-like materials.
"We've got a lot of experiments and research stuff on the horizon," he said.
Over time, the university hopes to see a sustainable and reliable supply of oyster larvae to support replenishment of public and private harvest reefs as well as natural reefs in non-harvestable areas — and the oyster larvae that will eventually end up back in coastal waters are derived from native animals.
"All of our brood stock comes from Mississippi waters," Cannon said. "Right now we're focusing on what we know will grow in our waters."
The Aqua Green facility incorporates nine structures, with a combined footprint of approximately 99,000 square feet on more than 47 acres of land. It serves as a land-based aquaculture research, hatchery and nursery center. Capable of year-round operation, Aqua Green has the ability to maintain appropriate salinity levels, recirculate artificial seawater and recapture salt for reuse.
Funding for acquisition of the facility will also support renovations for expanded oyster aquaculture research and production, teaching and student research needs, and integration and expansion of other Southern Miss aquaculture programs, such as blue crabs, fin fish and shrimp.
"We're extremely excited about this," Cannon said.