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Oyster farmers learning the basics

By LISA MONTI

Future farmers of oysters in Mississippi will be getting some lessons and hands-on training this summer on the fundamentals of oyster farming in neighboring Alabama. What they bring back and put into practice in coastal waters is designed to give Mississippi’s lagging oyster industry “a jumpstart,” said Jason Rider, oyster extension agent for the state Department of Marine Resources. “We want to show them how to do it and do it well.”

Alabama has offered the classes to its state residents for a few years but this is the first time the training has been open to Mississippians.

“We’re partnering with Alabama to bring five Mississippi residents to the Alabama program to take the training classes,” Rider said. Each student is allowed to have one person join in the training.

The Mississippians who signed up for the training  include business owners and commercial fishermen, “a mixed bag,” Rider said.

The coursework will give oyster farmers a foundation of knowledge to start or improve their oyster farming operation.

Topics covered include oyster biology, hatchery basics, nursery options, seed handling, farm-site selection, overview of off-bottom culture gear, business planning, risk management, permitting, public health considerations and marketing.

The 15-hour, non-credit course in the basics of off-bottom oyster aquaculture will be taught by Rider and Bill Walton of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System at Auburn University’s Shellfish Laboratory on Dauphin Island. The classes begin June 3 and will cover oyster biology and seed handling as well as the business side of farming including risk management, permitting and marketing.

The $250 course includes the option of receiving about 10,000 oyster seeds and the use of one 100-yard run of oyster farming gear in the Grand Bay Oyster Park for a year. The novice farmers will be required to develop a basic business plan and document their oyster production as part of the training program. They’ll also have to follow best practices at the training site in Portersville Bay.

Mississippi does not have a permanent area to farm oysters but Ride said DMR officials are working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to  change that. He said the hope is to have a training program similar to Alabama’s where residents can learn how to raise oysters in the next year or 18 months. DMR would sublease the area to oyster farmers, who otherwise would have  to go through a complex and expensive permitting process on their own.

DMR also has been working to cut through the regulatory barriers potential oyster farmers face in the state. The agency worked to change some of the regulations last year to accommodate off bottom aquaculture.

“We don’t want anybody to fail, we want to see them succeed,” Rider said. Having the farmers be successful has a ripple effect, he said. “It helps the Gulf and the oyster industry as well as the restaurant industry. It’s generating a lot of economic and ecological benefits.”

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