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Mariculture Center Upgrade Underway

December 15, 2011

By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
 
When the shovels sank into the coastal soil at the Marine Resources Division facility in Gulf Shores on Dec. 12, the work officially began to bring the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center into the 21st century.

Gov. Robert Bentley joined Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr., Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft, Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship and other dignitaries in celebration of the start of construction that will add a 21,000-square-foot laboratory and hatchery facility and an 8,000-square-foot administration building.

Funds for the $9.56 million project will come primarily from federal sources, including Coastal Impact Assistance Program, Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through the Emergency Relief Program.

“This will be a multipurpose facility, depending on what we need to do,” said Blankenship, who said plans for the new facility have been in the works for about five years. “If we need to do some restocking, then we can do that on species like Florida pompano, red drum, spotted seatrout or any species that are in peril and need some help. We can also do a lot of research to help with the management of other species, like spawning research, life history and life cycle studies. We can also do some oil-related work if there is a need.

“We also can work with Auburn, Dauphin Island Sea Lab and other institutions of higher learning to help them with their research into various species. All of that knowledge helps with the management of Alabama’s coastal waters. When the facility is completed, I think we’ll be doing some work on Florida pompano, and we still plan to do some red snapper work. We’re still producing some red snapper, but it is very difficult. The fact that our facility is more than 30 years old has hindered our ability to do some work with red snapper. With the new facility, we plan to ramp that research back up with Auburn. We provide them with fish we produce here and they use them in their studies. They look at artificial reefs offshore, and that helps us decide how to use our funds, whether it’s big reefs or small reefs. It helps in the stock assessment for red snapper and other species.”

Blankenship said the 51 employees in Marine Resources help manage Alabama’s coastal fisheries, which include oystering, crabbing, shrimping, all the commercial and recreational fishing, seafood retailer inspections, as well as long-term monitoring of the coastal ecosystem.

Currently, the Claude Peteet facility has 35 quarter-acre ponds that are used in mariculture, as well as access to water sources unavailable at most other hatcheries.

“This facility is uniquely situated here to be very valuable as a hatchery facility,” Blankenship said. “We have two pipelines that bring water to our facility. We have a low-salinity pipeline that brings water from the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, and we have a pipeline that brings in high-salinity water from the Gulf of Mexico through the pipeline that runs from the Gulf State Park Pier.

“We can mix those two water sources to get the salinity we need for any type of work we’ll be doing here.”

Blankenship said the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center was built in 1973 with Sport Fish Restoration funds to do work with striped bass. In the mid 1980s, the work shifted away from striped bass and into red drum (redfish) because of heavy pressure from purse seine fishing and the “blackened” redfish craze.

In the late 1980s, spotted seatrout (speckled trout) were spawned and grown to a size that would allow for tagging studies to determine movement, growth characteristics and fishing mortality.

Red snapper became the hot topic of the 1990s with increased fishing pressure on the popular species. Blankenship said the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center was the first hatchery to spawn and rear red snapper to an adult size.

“That red snapper research was some of the ground-breaking work done here under Director Vernon Minton, who passed away a year ago,” Blankenship said. “Red snapper is what Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are famous for, and that’s what brings people down to the beach. A lot of people want to take a charter and catch red snapper. The season has been so short the last two years that it sure would help the economy if we could have a longer red snapper season and get that fishery back to where it belongs.”

The latest effort at the mariculture center has been with shrimp aquaculture in conjunction with Auburn, the University of South Alabama and Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Shrimp were grown to marketable size in the center’s ponds as part of the Black Belt Initiative.

“The new center will allow us to extend that cooperative research with those universities and to really make a big impact on the ecosystem along the coast,” Blankenship said. “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.”

Commissioner Guy said on his first visit to the Marine Resources facility in Gulf Shores, he knew an upgrade was sorely needed.

“I remember when Chris brought me down to show me these old buildings,” Guy said. “The Claude Peteet Mariculture Center has needed a facelift for some time now. When this work is completed, we’ll have a great new facility so new research can be done. I hope, too, that this facility will be a valuable asset as we continue to assess the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the waters of our coast. Hopefully, through the work of this facility, we will keep those fisheries – oysters, shrimp, all those types of seafood – safe and thriving. I do applaud Chris and the Marine Resources Division for what they do.”

Herb Malone of the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitor’s Bureau said the facility can be another drawing card for the tourist industry on the Alabama Coast.

“This will be another great asset for the area and the state,” Malone said. “When the facility is up and running, I’ve talked to Chris about doing some public outreach, such as field trips and education programs that will offer additional resources for our tourists when they are here.”

Blankenship said economist Semoon Chang of the University of South Alabama said the construction will create 167 direct jobs and 320 indirect jobs. Once construction is complete, Blankenship anticipates 10-12 new Marine Resources employees will be added to help operate the facility.

Those are the kinds of numbers Gov. Bentley likes to hear.

“The research here will help create jobs,” Gov. Bentley said. “We have 9,750 people who work in our commercial seafood industry and 4,719 working in our recreational fishing industry. When we have our offshore species doing well, it really makes a difference. We really need to support those industries because they create a lot of jobs in this area.

“But also, this construction will create jobs. Every job we create will help one more person, one more family. That is our No. 1 goal, to put people back to work.”

PHOTO: In celebration of the opening of construction on new hatchery and administration buildings at the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores, Gov. Robert Bentley, fourth from right, joined in the ground-breaking ceremony. Others participating, from left, are: John Rigrish of HOAR Project Management, Chris Denson of Marine Resources, Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft, Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship, Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr., Richard Simonton of Krebs Architects, and Terry Boyd of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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