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Research helping to restore Alabama’s oyster reefs

Oysters are an important resource for Alabama’s economy. Along the state’s more than 50 miles of coastline, oyster reefs have been depleted in some areas during recent years, making shellfish habitat research a priority for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. By utilizing science, experts are finding new ways to restore Alabama’s coast.

Closely involved in oyster reef research in Alabama is the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory (AUSL). This station is located on Dauphin Island where applied research is used to directly address hurdles and concerns of the aquaculture industry. Alabama Extension Assistant Professor Andrea Tarnecki said it’s a job she enjoys doing every day.

“My role as an Extension specialist is not only to survey stakeholders about their research needs, but also convey information back to those stakeholders,” Tarnecki said. “It’s a two-way communication system to figure out what they need and also being sure to get solutions back to them.”

For example, if a farmer is having an issue with a mortality event, Alabama Extension can design experiments to determine the cause. Solutions will then be provided to the farmer to circumvent the issue.

The objective

One of the AUSL’s current projects is returning oysters back to Little Dauphin Bay, adjacent to Dauphin Island. According to Tarnecki, this bay once harbored a healthy oyster population that supported the oyster harvesting community. These reefs, like many others in Alabama, have experienced significant decline over the years. By using aquaculture-based techniques to grow oysters in small clusters, researchers are returning oysters to Little Dauphin Bay to help restore the historical reefs.

The Alabama Power Service Organization is among the many partners, nonprofits and research organizations along the Gulf Coast that are also working to support restoration of oyster reefs in the region, including along Mobile Bay and near communities where oystering is a key industry, such as Bayou La Batre.

There is more than one benefit to reforming Alabama’s oyster reefs. By nature, mollusks such as oysters and clams are water-filtering organisms. They feed on the algae and bacteria that can also affect water quality.

“Oysters are filter feeders so they are able to filter algae from the seawater, allowing sunlight to penetrate deeper into the bay,” Tarnecki said. “In addition, oyster reefs provide extremely important habitat, which supports recreational and commercial fisheries.”

She also said reefs have a direct relationship with beach erosion. Without their structure helping protect shorelines, erosion increases, which can damage property and affect water quality.

Tarnecki said Alabama Extension’s goal regarding marine aquaculture is to provide unbiased, science-based information and research that benefits current and future generations.

“There are so many things that I love about this job and our research,” she said. “The oyster community is very tight-knit, so we have a great community to work with. In addition, we get to work with animals and interact with wonderful Alabama residents.”

The Extension team at the AUSL also provides hands-on education opportunities for the next generation of researchers through internship and graduate programs. The experience allows students from Auburn University to get their feet wet with dedicated aquaculture researchers.

“I feel very blessed to be able to work with so many students and young individuals new to aquaculture,” Tarnecki said. “There is something special about bringing someone into the lab for the first time and showing them the organisms, how they act and their life cycle. You can just see it spark interest in those students’ eyes.”

Oysters growing in an aquatic tank for research. (Alabama Cooperative Extension System)

Tarnecki said inspiration is always the goal when working with students. Despite the possibility that the student may not continue learning aquaculture sciences, their time spent with Extension and the AUSL provides them with knowledge to act as stewards for everyone outside of the lab.

For more information about research in oyster aquaculture, visit Alabama Extension’s website,

A version of this story originally appears on the Alabama Cooperative Extension System website.