Anyone driving on Scenic Highway recently between Scenic Terrace and Park Place Apartments probably spotted rows of dark-colored shapes floating in Escambia Bay and wondered, “What are those?”
The dark shapes round into focus July 15 as Donnie McMahon III steers his Sea Ray boat toward the site. McMahon, president of McMahon & Hadder Insurance, Inc., is leasing a total of 10 acres in Escambia Bay and East Bay from the State of Florida to harvest oyster farms as a side gig.
Eighty cages float at the Magnolia Bluff site in Escambia Bay. The cages will soon be filled with seeds and produce oysters for his startup, Pensacola Bay Oyster Company. McMahon said he will fill the cages with seeds as early as next week.
“The real work begins when I put the seeds in there, and you have to come out and check them periodically, and about once a week you have to flip them and split them,” said McMahon, who is consulting with an engineer to create a machine similar to a garbage truck lift arm capable of lifting, flipping and then setting the cages back down. Each cage weighs 300-400 pounds.
Pensacola Bay Oyster Company is the best of both worlds for McMahon, who studied business and marine biology at Florida State University.
McMahon grew up in Pensacola and remembers when the Bay contained an ample supply of oysters. He said hurricanes and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill damaged wild beds, and the local oyster-growing market dried up. McMahon already spoke to Grand Marlin, Jackson’s Steakhouse and Oyster Bar Restaurant & Marina about providing oysters to their respective establishments.
“What we encourage them to do is if you’ve got Louisiana oysters put these up, too, and charge a premium price. I think there’s a really big demand for it,” said McMahon, who opted to grow the oysters at the top of the water column, as opposed to the bottom culture, where predators loom.
Ideally, McMahon will grow the seeds into market-size oysters within a year and build up 10 acres over a three-year period. The game plan is to grow one million oysters per acre.
McMahon said he will use seeds from the Auburn University Shellfish Lab on Dauphin Island. Bill Walton, associate professor extension specialist for the Auburn School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, advises McMahon on his oyster farm.
Walton created a business model for oyster farms in the Gulf of Mexico. Oyster farmers in Alabama and Louisiana use the model, and Walton, who heard tales about scrumptious East Bay oysters, considers the Florida Panhandle to be a ripe location.
“It’s a little bit like microbrews, right?” Walton said. “Why not have people who can also grow and farm these really awesome oysters that do go for a higher price, but also are just perfect for the half shell?”
The benefits of an oyster farm extend to the environment.
Oysters absorb and filter nutrients and clear otherwise green water. Clear water allows seagrasses, which provide food, habitat and nursery areas for marine species, to better soak up sunlight. Walton said oysters further provide habitat by attracting little blue crabs, shrimp and fish.
“We have definitely seen around any of the oyster farms that it’s always the water that’s creating habitat for these juveniles,” Walton said, “and then that leads to habitat for some of the bigger fish, too.”
McMahon jumped through countless legal hoops and spent six figures to potentially improve marine life in the Bay and serve up tasty oysters. He worked with the Department of Agriculture Division of Aquaculture, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet among others to obtain the proper certifications and permits.
The novice oyster farmer said he will probably only harvest at the Magnolia Bluff site this year and tackle East Bay in 2017. Black River and Yellow River flow into the East Bay location, and McMahon said the salinity of the water differs from that in Escambia Bay.
“I’ll be interested to see how they grow and taste in the two areas,” he said. “A lot of oysters you eat anymore don’t have any flavor.”
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