The second annual Alabama Oyster Social was held January 29 at the Alabama Farmers Pavilion at Auburn University. The social is a nonprofit event held to promote the importance of Mariculture in Alabama as well as raise money for the Auburn University Department of Fisheries and Aquatics.
The Auburn Shellfish Laboratory in Dauphin Island focuses on the research, education, and training for farming quality oysters in a sustainable way and is led by Dr. Bill Walton. In 2011, Auburn University found an opportunity to lease 60 acres of oyster rights from a family. There would be a research area for Auburn and area for Alabama oyster farmers for five years. “The intent of it was to help jumpstart the industry to provide a zone that was permitted for this where you have your neighbors to cooperate with and keep an eye on things,” said Walton. By 2013 the park had been filled with about 17 farmers who had gone through the Auburn training and were using the waters. Because of the growth, Auburn began talking about extending the lease contract for 10 years and after contacting the family everything seemed to be moving forward.
The first Alabama Oyster Social was held in January 2015 and raised $8,000 to give to the university. “In a town where there’s usually something going on there is not a whole lot to do in January. So it’s a good time to get people together and party for a purpose,” said Chef David Bancroft, host of the event. With the success of the first social, they were eager to plan for the next year. Then around May of 2015, Auburn learned that the lease was denied renewal and that no one would get the oyster rights. It was upsetting but they would be able to find water and get the permits for a new farm. “The first thing we’re trying to solve here is what do we do with all these farmers that have businesses that depend on their oysters in the water and their gear in the water, they need another area,” said Walton. The contract ends this summer and everything must be out. Auburn has sighted two areas and are in the permitting process for both, they hope to come out stronger and arrange two farms with longer lease contracts. The current farmers will have an opportunity to move to either of the parks, but it will be an expensive and time-consuming move to get their equipment out of the water and relocated to the new park. Auburn hopes to help offset costs for these farmers.
Bancroft contacted an all-star team of 16 chefs from around the South that are supporters and users of local seafood to come and partake in the second social. After talking with Walton and learning about the denied renewal, the chefs came up with an ambitious goal of $100,000 to raise through ticket sales and donations. Ten days before the social, general admission and VIP tickets had sold out. At the social on Friday night a crowd of about 300 people sampled oysters and other specialty dishes, listened to live music, and socialized. Towards the end of the evening, Bancroft presented Walton with a check for $25,000 for the AU Shellfish Lab. Bancroft said he intends to reach the $100,000 goal by the end of 2016.
To learn more about the Auburn University program please visit http://sfaas.auburn.edu/ and if you would like to make a donation to the Alabama Oyster Social you may do so at http://www.alabamaoystersocial.com.