A well-loved local oyster farm is taking a stand for the area’s environment after above-average rainfall this month damaged crops and, they say, highlighted the need to better conserve area waterways.

“We lost a lot of our oysters to this rain,” said Don McMahon, owner of Pensacola Bay Oyster Co. “Oysters don’t like freshwater, and we’ve had a whole lot of it lately.”

It has been a very wet summer. The Pensacola area has received about 60 inches of rain so far this year, more than in 95 percent of years on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

An oyster farm off East Pensacola Heights in Pensacola Bay. (Pensacola Bay Oyster Co./Special to The Pulse)

McMahon, a lifelong Pensacola resident, just started his oyster farm last year and, in the months since, has struggled to keep pace with demand.

“East Bay used to produce some of the best oysters anywhere,” McMahon said, “but that fishery collapsed years ago. Now, we’re trying to bring back some of what was lost.”

For McMahon, that means instilling a “pride of place,” in the town he loves, creating jobs and restoring the environment.

“Sustainability is one of our core values,” McMahon said. “Oyster farms are fantastic for the environment. They filter water. They sequester carbon and nitrogen, and they create habitat for other species. But they’re also dependent on the environment.”
This month’s rainfall drove that point home.

“Our long-term vision is to see wild oysters growing again alongside our farm,” McMahon said, “Right now, that’s not possible, because every time we have a big storm, the rain flushes sediment and organic material into our bays and bayous. That’s bad for wild oyster reefs, and that’s why you won’t find wild Pensacola oysters on any area menus. We can fix that, but, to get there, we have to return to the source, which is our rivers and creeks.”

Oysters are harvested by the Pensacola Bay Oyster Company in Pensacola Bay. (Pensacola Bay Oyster Co./Special to The Pulse)

A first step, McMahon said, would be to restore natural “buffer zones,” trees and brush that grow alongside wild creeks – filtering out detritus and holding sediment in place, so that it doesn’t all wash downstream.

“We’ll bounce back,” McMahon said. “It’ll be several months, but we’ll get there. Our natural systems aren’t so lucky. They can’t recover without our help.”

McMahon recently built an oyster nursery in Pensacola, using $100,000 he won during this year’s Innovation Awards.

Oysters are harvested by the Pensacola Bay Oyster Company in Pensacola Bay. (Pensacola Bay Oyster Co./Special to The Pulse)

“We’ve already ordered more baby oysters to repopulate the farm,” he said. “You’ll see our oysters back on area menus soon.”

In the meantime, the company is using the setback as an opportunity to focus on its larger mission: sustainability. For the entire month of August, McMahon said, the company will donate 100 percent of profits from merchandise sales to the Bream Fishermen Association, a 50-year-old organization dedicated to improving water quality and safeguarding area rivers and creeks.

“If there’s one thing oysters will teach you,” McMahon said. “It’s that we’re all connected. We’re proud to partner with the Bream Fishermen to protect the environment that our business depends on. We hope others will join us.”