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State, local interests at odds over management of Alabama oyster reefs

As oyster catching along the Gulf of Mexico has fallen to historic lows, some fishermen are breaking the law to make a living.

BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala. (CN)  — In a Mobile County district courtroom Wednesday, on a docket otherwise filled with typical misdemeanor cases including theft of property, unleashed dogs and narcotics possession, there were a handful of defendants charged with crimes of a different nature.

Their citations were written by law enforcement officers for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, specifically, the Marine Resources Division, which manages the state’s fisheries. 

In quick bench trials, Sergio Gabural Lopez Jr. and Arthur Thomas Isham Jr. were found guilty of possession of untagged oysters and failure to retrieve an oyster management card, respectively. The latter is a procedural offense, suggesting the defendant simply forgot to do the paperwork associated with his oyster harvest, but both defendants were found guilty and levied fines of $150 each. Neither had an attorney. 

Two other defendants cited by the Marine Resources Division failed to appear. As a result, warrants were issued for Tristen Cade Brannon, charged with possession of unculled oysters, and Aaron Christopher Sprinkle, charged with taking oysters at night. 

A fifth defendant, Samuel Jay Lyons, pleaded not guilty to taking oysters from a closed area, along with operating an unregistered vessel. In January, the Marine Resources Division posted pictures of Lyons’ incident on its Facebook page

The vessel was inspected at the dock by an officer who suspected Lyons was carrying an illegal oyster harvest, a few weeks after the state closed its public reefs. According to the officers, Lyons had concealed three sacks of oysters — roughly 200 pounds — beneath a false floor in the vessel. The oysters were returned to the reef and Lyons has a bench trial scheduled in May. 

“The way they are managing the reefs is ridiculous,” said a Lyons family member who asked not to be identified because they fear harassment from law enforcement. “They want to go by the textbook, but who is writing the textbook and how can you write a textbook for a natural resource?”

The Lyons family history in the Bayou La Batre fishing industry can be traced back four generations and only in recent years has the state heavily regulated harvests from what fishermen believe is a prolific reef. 

The state’s oyster catching season is officially open from Oct. 1 to April 30, but last year the Marine Resources Division decided to close the reefs on Dec. 23, after 44,000 sacks were harvested, or roughly 3.7 million pounds. It wasn’t quite as many as the 50,020 sacks harvested the year before, but it was on pace with the harvest in the 2012 season.

In the decade in between, oyster harvests in Alabama took a nosedive. In 2018, the state allowed no harvest. 

“We had a freshwater drought for four years, then Hurricane Katrina hit us, then came a plague of oyster drills, then there was BP oil spill,” said Michael Williams, a commercial fisherman who has worked Alabama’s oyster reefs for more than 30 years.

He added, “So the reefs were wiped out there for a few years, but they have since come back. The oysters are thick on those reefs like it was when I started, when I could harvest 100 sacks per day with a pair of tongs. Now they begrudge a man six sacks and tell us we should be grateful. I could get my limit every day and the oysters are as big as your foot. I think altogether we pulled about $2.8 million worth of oysters up this year, but it could have been $20 million easy.”  

Williams, who also operates a retail shrimp business off his boat the Salty Pirate on a Dauphin Island dock, said he had heard about the Lyons incident and about other fishermen who were ticketed by the Marine Resource Division this season. He said law enforcement officers can be zealous with citations, even using GPS technology to write tickets to fishermen whose boats have drifted a few feet outside the boundaries of open reefs. 


But he also acknowledged that breaking the law is an easy decision for some fishermen, especially as oyster prices have reached 75 cents per pound or more. 

"If people know there is money laying out there, of course they are going to be fishing it whether it is open or closed,” Williams said. “I don’t agree with it, but nobody has to be out there stealing oysters, because this community could be thriving instead of in poverty, if only the state would open the reefs.”

Williams is also the president of the Alabama Commercial Fishing Association, an emerging nonprofit advocacy organization representing about 600 members. He encourages compliance with regulations and suggested it can be difficult lobbying for some of the group’s more independent members, especially those who have a history of citations or don’t pay taxes. 

“I think we’d have a little more influence if everyone played by the rules but for a lot of us, this is the only thing we know how to do,” he said. 

After the reef was suddenly closed in December, Williams and his wife started an online petition encouraging the state to leave the waters open for the full oyster season. It has since garnered nearly 500 signatures.

“Opening the reef until season's end would allow Alabama's oyster fisherman to surplus Alabama's oyster market and revive the local market and economy,” the petition states. “This is beneficial to the community, local small businesses and the oyster fisherman and many others who benefit from Alabama oysters.”

Alabama oyster catchers pulled 44,000 sacks from public reefs in 2022, representing a total value of $2.8 million. (Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources via Courthouse News).

If Alabama’s oyster reefs are indeed thriving, they would be an anomaly in the Gulf of Mexico. In Texas, only about one-third of its 29 public reefs were opened this year due to “a variety of environmental factors and localized harvest pressures.” Florida shut down Apalachicola Bay – once the Gulf’s most prolific oyster reef – for a period of five years after the population there decreased to the point of total collapse. Mississippi faced many of the same problems as Alabama, but its harvest was largely destroyed after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened floodgates on the Mississippi River in 2011 and 2019, resulting in a freshwater flushing of the reefs, along with millions of cubic yards of silt covering the hard bottom they need to grow. 

Oysters can only grow naturally in certain hard bottom estuaries, within specific salinity requirements demanding a constant give and take from both freshwater and saltwater sources. Inundation from flood waters upstream can leave them vulnerable to bacteria and siltation, while too much salinity — the result of droughts, strong tides, changing currents and storm surges — invites pathogens and parasitic worms and oyster drills, among other plagues. 

In the ideal environment, they are prolific. Females can spawn 100 million eggs each. Adults can live more than 10 years and grow 8 to 10 inches. Early in the 20th century, Alabama’s reefs were so prolific they supported three full-time canneries which shipped oysters nationwide. They produced so much shell waste, they were used to pave some of the county’s early roads. 

Scott Bannon, director of the Marine Resources Division, said the environment for Alabama oysters has noticeably improved in recent years, but believes it would be foolish to allow fishermen to exploit it. 

“We've been seeing some positive things occur out there and a lot of it is due to naturally occurring things but we attribute some of it to good management,” he said by phone Wednesday. “We have to keep the resource there for longevity. We're in a positive trend right now and some oyster catchers think at any time that could tip the other way, so we should harvest everything we can. But as a resource manager, I can't set the goal of ‘let's take everything we can in case something bad happens.’ We have to lean toward the positive and continue to build on the resource while it is healthy.”

Bannon explained that the harvest limit is determined by preseason surveys small portions of the public reefs, but the limit can be adjusted during the harvest depending on what officers observe. It was stopped on Dec. 23 because more fishermen participated than the state expected and their catch was increasingly undersized as the reef was worked. 

“It’s not an exact science but we try to get as realistic a view as we can,” he said. 

Bannon wouldn’t speak about the Lyons case or others specifically, but said blatant theft of the oysters is concerning primarily because it may occur when the waters are closed for bacterial contamination, or there may be health hazards from the way the oysters were handled and processed. 

Separately, organizations including the Marine Resources Division have been awarded more than $18 million in fines and penalties from the BP oil spill to attempt to rebuild the oyster population. Bannon couldn’t speak to all of the projects since funded with the money, but suggested a state-sponsored project to study the effects of planting oysters in rows and mounds to experiment with different levels of oxygen in the water column was successful and results should be available soon. The agency has also invested in a new tong system which should allow it to perform more surveys once it is deployed this year, Bannon added. 

Separately, the agency is also building an oyster hatchery which is expected to produce an estimated 65 million larvae per year. Once operational, the larvae will be distributed to various locations in Mobile Bay and the Mississippi Sound to bolster natural populations.

Bannon also noted the practice of off-bottom oyster farming in the state has also grown in leaps and bounds since it was introduced around 2009. But where there were once as many as 21 licensed private oyster farming operations, today there are only 11 to 15. 

“Some people got into the business and found out that it’s a tremendous amount of work and very labor intensive,” he said. “Of course they also have to deal with some of the same environmental conditions such as salinity, bacteria or pollution. But those that are successful have built a market around it and figured out a way to manage the labor side of it.”

Oysters were once so prolific their shells were used to pave some of the early roads in Mobile County. Here, a shells in Bayou La Batre are returned to the reef where they can be used a medium for more oyster growth. (Gabriel Tynes, Courthouse News)
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