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Port of Pensacola 2: Oysters

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Pensacola Bay Oyster Co.
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In part two of our look at the work aimed at converting the Port of Pensacola into a “niche port,” WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody looks at a growing seafood company housed there.

Pensacola Bay Oyster Co. was founded in 2013, by Pensacola native Donnie McMahon.

“These are the first-ever Pensacola Bay–spawned oysters; we spawned them a few weeks ago,” said McMahon shortly after their opening six years ago. “The oyster is really an amazing creature; it can filter up to 50 gallons [of water] a day.”

McMahon remembered the abundance of oysters in Pensacola Bay until 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill damaged local beds in the Gulf of Mexico and dried up the local oyster market.

“When I bought this farm, I thought people would be upset; it’s aesthetically not the most beautiful thing, but they were quick to embrace it because they knew how good it was for the environment,” said McMahon on the program “Florida Voices” in 2018.

Besides providing a popular seafood, McMahon said his firm’s other mission is caring for the environment.

“I think that’s very important to businesses, in fact I think businesses are the key to supporting this,” McMahon said. “Every businessman I’ve talked to is very concerned about the environment; how are we going to leave a legacy for our kids in Florida?” Our biggest asset is here in the beautiful [Pensacola] bay, and we did a lot to mess it up over the years.”

The Port of Pensacola’s foray into becoming a niche port does not preclude it from expanding the port’s markets. Director Amy Miller says one example is Pensacola Bay Oyster Co.

“And [McMahon] is kind of the hub tenant in what we hope will become a growing aquaculture sector here,” Miller said.

“This is our hatchery where commercial operation [is]; we began building it probably March-April of ’18,” said Hatchery manager Josh Neese, who met with visitors during the open house.

Standing next to three mammoth static tanks that hold the baby oysters -- called oyster seed -- Neese said it’s a very weather-dependent business, and they’re done by late fall.

“Where you’re standing now is the larval room. What we do is collect wild brood stock from the bay. We bring them in here and spawn them; we fertilize eggs in these tanks. We can stock 40 million per tank,” said Neese.

The fertilized egg is about 20-40 micrometers in size when introduced into the static tanks; they’re fed manually and there’s some aeration that keeps the water moving, and the larvae afloat. Then, they’re drained down.

“When I say ‘drain down,’ we’ll affix bags to the manifolds – the drains – the water gently passes through and the bags collect the larvae,” Neese said. “We wash them out into buckets, and then on the microscope we count them and know what we have.”

The baby oysters grow rapidly to about two millimeters in width to start. When they reach six millimeters, they’re sold to other oyster farms in Florida. They’ll reach market size – roughly three inches in width – in about a year.

“In this stage, they’ll metamorphous a few times,” Neese said. “Develop from a fertilized egg to what’s referred to as a ‘trochophor;’ after about 48 hours, they form into what’s referred to as a ‘veliger.’ [At that point] they are free-swimming; they actually have a shell that can open and close.”

But they’re still very fragile, says Neese. They’ll live in the tanks for about two weeks, until they’re ready to do what’s called “setting” – another major life history metamorphosis.

“Just to give you a kind of an idea, the average spawn may have 100 million fertilized eggs,” said Neese. “Through the larval phase to the setting phase, we may have 10 million; and then maybe 30 percent of those set and actually move on to the nursery phase.”

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Along with selling oysters for the table, Neese says they’re also involved with restoration projects, which he calls a key component of aquaculture.

“That’s not really a part of the business model, it’s just something we’re kind of moving towards, trying to help the environment,” said Neese. “My personal opinion is, one can’t exists without the other. This whole process of aquaculture producing commercial seed begins with collecting in the wild. And if there’s no wild brood stock then there’s no aquaculture.”

About 40,000 oysters were stolen from Pensacola Bay Oyster Company in late July. Photos posted on social media by the firm showed nearly 40 empty bags found in a wooded area in the East Bay area. But Neese says the loss didn’t slow business or create any obstacles – it was just a loss.

“With food safety and the traceability within Florida, due to regulations for aquaculture, once they go off the grid, they’re lost for good,” said Neese. “There’s no ‘we found them, we can put ‘em back in their cages and resell them.’ They’re done, because we have no idea what happened to them – we have no oversight.”

Four people from Milton and Pace — including a mother and son — were arrested by the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and charged in the theft. An agency spokeswoman said the group tried to sell the stolen oysters in the Santa Rosa County area.