A Project for Students and Citizens

Living Democracy in Bayou La Batre: Week Eight

In Bayou La Batre on July 24, 2013 at 3:40 pm
Oysters 6 Laney

Students wade into Gulf waters to learn about oyster farming techniques from Auburn University’s Dr. Bill Walton.

Experience with oysters holds pearls of wisdom

By Laney Payne

If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.

Oysters 3 Laney

A handful of baby oysters.

As a 23-year-old psychology major at Auburn University, never in my life did I think I’d be in “Bayou Reeboks” oyster farming alongside the field’s best.  But, as a Living Democracy Fellow working in Bayou La Batre this summer, I’ve learned firsthand about the heart and soul of this coastal community.

Two months ago, I thought oysters were the slimy goodness that came on the half shell smothered in cocktail sauce. Never once did I think I’d be chest-deep in the waters that grow the delicacy. Under the instruction of Dr. Bill Walton, Auburn University’s aquaculture extension specialist, and Scott Rikard, Auburn University’s aquaculture nursery manager, I have been blessed with the opportunity to learn the walk and talk of the oyster business.

I have learned about everything from triploids to Shellfish Aquaculture Review Boards to plot acreages to screening silos. After hearing about the amazing anatomy of oysters and how special upweller tubs can serve as temporary growing stations, I can now add a piece of oyster experience to my resume. In this process of discovery, I have grown to respect the individuals who live their life at the mercy of the tides.

BLB Oyster 1

Laney Payne puts screens in silos for upweller site.

Unlike the wooden desks of my usual Auburn classroom, the classroom here is held more than a mile offshore in the cool coastal waters underneath the beaming sun. With my back against the aluminum railing tucked inside a bright orange life vest, I took in the beautiful Alabama waters that support the families who shared the boat as we headed out to the “farm”.

Without a John Deere tractor in sight, the oyster farm Dr. Walton is helping to develop nourishes a variety of oysters of all shapes in sizes. From Australian long lines to off-bottom cages, the oysters develop organically in their natural habitat with the help of people invested in seeing their “crop” flourish.

Laney Oysters 2

Worker assembles oyster cages.

The oysters we see on our plates atop saltines are just the final stage in a long line of work known by the oyster farming crew. At the Auburn nursery, the oyster farming business begins even before the babies exist. They spawn each oyster on site and create their own oyster “seed”. From there, the babies take a trip from tub to tub to soak in the freshly pumped and filtered seawater for nutrients and oxygen. As each oyster develops, they are moved to a larger mesh screen and eventually taken out to the true “farm” stage in the wild. There they will stay until it is harvest time.

Oystering is much more than just a way of life for many of the people along Alabama’s coast. It’s a family tradition, and it’s in their blood. Whether it be through Auburn’s nursery or from the local wild waters of the Gulf, the oystermen are here to stay in the bayou in spite of the many troubles that have given them every reason to leave.

Through my oyster adventure, I have found myself drawing connections between this sea creature and restaurant delicacy to the people I have come to connect with and love. When just a microscopic animal, oysters swim in search of the “taste” of other oyster shells to attach to and make their “home”. The way they see it, if someone (an oyster in this case) has survived and flourished there, they can too. This process is called “spat-on-shell” to the people who know the industry. To the rest of us, it is simple safety in numbers.

Laney Oysters 4

Participants in class grade oysters for aging.

The people of the bayou are much like the “spat-on-shell” oysters themselves. With every odd against them — Hurricane Ivan, Hurricane Katrina, the BP Oil Spill — they have survived. By sticking together, close to family roots and tradition, the people here will thrive.

As a 23-year-old psychology student, I never knew my journey would lead me to the realm of “oyster farming”, but I am blessed that it did. By doing something I have never done, I am receiving things that I have never known. This Auburn-turned-bayou woman is watching her harvest flourish and blessed to be on the journey that is Living Democracy.

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