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Oyster farmers concerned about widening Mobile’s shipping channel

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Oyster farmers concerned about widening Mobile’s shipping channel (IMG:WPMI)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently studying the impacts of widening and deepening Mobile's shipping channel. Most leaders tout the positive economic impacts the nearly $400 million project will bring, but oyster farmers are sounding the alarm about their concerns with the project.

Robert Pettie considers himself an oyster hobbyist. He's a member of the Mobile Bay Oyster Alliance, a group concerned that expansion of the shipping channel will mean bigger vessels throwing huge wakes, which they say kills oysters.

"The wave energy, we feel, is what's caused all of our submerged aquatic grasses to disappear, all of our oyster reefs to disappear, and when you lose those two, you lose your crabs shrimp and fish and nursery system that goes with all that," said Pettie.

The expansion project would widen the channel by 100 feet and deepen it by five feet to allow for bigger ships to enter Mobile's port, which is the 10th largest deep water port in the country by volume.

"It's just imperative we do this project," said Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson.

Most leaders, including Alabama's entire Congressional delegation, both Democrats and Republicans, support the expansion project and the economic growth that will come with it.

"I do know this. If we do not widen and deepen, those ships will go somewhere else and we will lose that business. It's one of those things that if you're going to be in this business, you've got to grow with it," said Stimpson.

Pettie and other Mobile Bay Oyster Alliance members say they're not opposed to the project, but they'd like to see a compromise that would help stop such big wakes from rolling ashore.

"I'm not against widening the ship channel, I just want to slow ships down," said Pettie.

Pettie says another option would be building breakwaters, but that would be much more expensive. Pettie says they're only concerned about the powerful wakes commercial shipping vessels create, not the wake from recreational boats.

If approved, the project could start in 2020 and take at least three years to complete.

A copy of the Corps' draft study with details about the project can be found here.