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Mariculture Center Reborn in Gulf Shores

By DAVID RAINER 

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Anyone who visited the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in the past will definitely not recognize the place now. The Alabama Marine Resources Division’s fish hatchery/research facility and administrative building in Gulf Shores have been reborn in spectacular fashion.

The original mariculture center was built in 1973 on 45 acres on the Intracoastal Waterway for the purpose of raising striped bass to be restocked in Alabama waters. Since that introduction, Marine Resources has researched and reared a wide variety of fish and crustaceans at the facility. Battered through the years by tropical weather and conditions, the old facility was in dire need of modernization, according to Chris Blankenship, Director of the Marine Resources Division (MRD).

“That saltwater is so corrosive, and it had taken a toll on the facility,” Blankenship said. “And we outgrew it. We were limited in the amount of production we could do out of the old facility.”

The new, improved version of the mariculture center is huge compared to the original version.

“This one is 23,000 square feet with dedicated climate-controlled areas so that we can do a good job of controlling the water temperature and air temperature to optimize the growing conditions and spawning of the different species,” Blankenship said. “Just for reference, the old building was 3,750 square feet. It’s a huge increase in capacity.”

Blankenship said the mariculture center is uniquely situated to meet the needs for a wide variety of environmental conditions for the multitude of commercially and recreationally viable species on the Gulf Coast.

“We have two saltwater pipelines,” he said. “One is in the Intracoastal Waterway, where we pick up the brackish water. The other extends to the Gulf State Park Pier for the higher salinity of the Gulf. Becausewe have two sources, we can mix them to get the optimal salinity for the species we’re researching or spawning.”

Inside the facility, Blankenship said there will be dedicated rooms for brood stock, strip-spawning and algae production. Large, walk-in coolers and freezers will allow MRD to buy feed and necessary products in bulk to save money on operational costs.

During the early years of the mariculture center, a total of 35 production ponds were built on the property and only maintenance had been provided for those facilities. The species that have been raised at the mariculture center include striped bass, brown shrimp, white shrimp, pink shrimp, Brazilian white shrimp (blue shrimp), red claw macrobrachium (red claw shrimp), pompano, vermilion snapper, spotted seatrout, red drum, oysters, bull minnows, red snapper and cobia (ling).

One claim to fame for the original mariculture center was the work done with red snapper, the popular Gulf species that has been the center of controversy because of reduced seasons and bag limits despite evidence the species is thriving off Alabama’s Gulf Coast.

“The old facility was the only place in the world to learn how to spawn and grow red snapper,” Blankenship said. “That was the highlight of the work done there. It was difficult to learn how to grow red snapper. Now people are taking what we learned and are doing work with red snapper at hatcheries in other places.”

In the next few years, Blankenship said the new mariculture center’s focus will not be on red snapper but species like speckled trout (spotted seatrout), redfish (red drum) and Florida pompano.

“The reason we’re not working with red snapper initially in this facility is that, right now, we have such a great red snapper fishery off the coast of Alabama that we don’t feel like restocking red snapper is thebest use of the facility at this time,” he said. “Because of the limited access to the red snapper fishery because of federal regulations, we’re going to work on other species, at least initially.”

Blankenship said the new facility will greatly increase the number of marine species it will be able to produce. Production has been offline since Hurricane Ivan destroyed the saltwater pumping station on the Gulf State Park Pier in 2004. A new pumping station was built on the new pier in 2010 and reconnected to the pipeline.

“Now that we have the pipeline repaired and a new facility, we’re ready to get back into large-scale fish production and see if we can improve some of the stocks here on the Alabama coast,” he said. “Plus, the new center will allow us to extend the cooperative research with the University of South Alabama, Auburn University and Dauphin Island Sea Lab to really make a big impact on the ecosystem along the coast. We’ll be able to do restocking and a lot of research on various species in an effort to increase the fisheries in Alabama and the Gulf of Mexico as a whole.”

The total cost for the new facility was a little more than $9 million. The majority of the funding for the new facility was provided through a variety of sources, including the Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP), the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (funding from oil production) and the Emergency Disaster Recovery Program (EDRP), money associated with Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.  The EDRP money was used to purchase tanks and equipment for fish production in the lab.

Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. said the new mariculture center will be especially important for the delicate ecosystems on the Gulf Coast.

“Now that the facility is virtually finished, we have a great new center that will be at the forefront of research on the marine species that make the Alabama Gulf Coast such a valuable asset to all the citizens of the state,” Guy said. “As we continue to assess the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the waters of our coast, this facility will be a valuable asset as we continue to ensure that those fisheries – oysters, shrimp, all types of fish species – are safe and abundant.”

Construction of the new facility took almost two years, while the entire project, which included planning and raising funds, took about 10 years.

“We have moved into the administration building,” Blankenship said. “Now we’re setting up the tanks and getting ready for production. Not only did we build a new building, but we also built new piers and ran new wiring to all 35 ponds, so essentially we have a new facility. All that wiring that was installed in the 70s has been replaced and upgraded to handle the new equipment. We’re really set up now to do good work.”

Blankenship said an official grand opening will take place some time this fall.

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