The University of Southern Mississippi plans to obtain an existing hatchery and aquaculture facility that will allow the University to lead oyster restoration efforts in an effort to boost the state of Mississippi’s oyster population and grow the state’s Blue Economy.
In a project proposed by Governor Phil Bryant, the state of Mississippi will provide $7.7 million in funding from requested BP settlement dollars for USM to acquire the Aqua Green hatchery facility located in Perkinston, Miss. The purchase of this facility will provide Southern Miss with the resources to work towards producing an expected goal of 10 billion oyster larvae annually. The remaining $3.0 million for the facility is being provided by the Mississippi Legislature.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for The University of Southern Mississippi to utilize scientific research and oyster aquaculture as a remedy to aid in the restoration of Mississippi’s depleted oyster reefs,” said Dr. Gordon Cannon, Southern Miss vice president for research. “We are grateful to Governor Bryant and the Mississppi Legislature for continuing to support our scientific and academic efforts which positively impact the Gulf Coast.”
Commercial oyster landings in Mississippi have declined from more than 400,000 sacks in 2004 to less than 27,000 sacks in 2015. The state of Mississippi, through the Governor’s Oyster Restoration and Resiliency Council (Council), has identified aquaculture as a way to help restore Mississippi’s oyster reefs.
The Council identified Aqua Green as the recommended hatchery based on its inland location out of harms’ way of hurricanes and tropical systems and its existing infrastructure.
In a partnership with Aqua Green, LLC, Southern Miss has successfully raised more than 500 million oyster larvae at the Aqua Green facility. The larvae has been produced through various trial runs using artificial seawater and recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), which is the first time both components have been used for oyster larvae aquaculture on this potential production scale, alleviating the need for a facility to be based directly on the coast. These advances will allow USM to produce oyster larvae regardless of ongoing seasonal water quality issues despite the natural coastal ecosystem that can adversely affect them.
“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 Dr. 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.”
The ultimate goal is to meet the Council’s recommendation of 10 billion oyster larvae produced annually. Through continued research and development, USM plans to refine these methods to incrementally increase production numbers to the Council’s target level.
Over time, a sustainable and reliable supply of predictable numbers of oyster larvae will support replenishment of public and private harvest reefs as well as natural reefs in non-harvestable areas.
“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,” said Hendon. “We also look forward to continuing to work with our state partners to expand and enhance our research and academic programs as they relate to oyster restoration and coastal restoration in general.”
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 USM aquaculture programs, such as blue crabs, finfish and shrimp, at the facility.