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P.J. Waters is uncertain of how big or how lasting the effects of this oil spill will be but he is pressing ahead anyway.

All he can do is stay busy and hope for the best as he and his colleagues work to provide spat — the technical name for oyster larvae that survive into the juvenile stage — to volunteers involved with the Mobile Bay Oyster Gardening Project.

With all the tender-loving care they can muster, these volunteers will raise these spat from June to November, when they are then retrieved by Waters and other personnel associated with the Shellfish Laboratory of Auburn University's Marine Research and Extension Center.

Then these oysters, which have grown roughly two to three inches in size, are introduced to oyster reefs throughout the region that have degraded over time.

Granted, they represent only a tiny portion of the vast populations of oysters that inhabit Gulf Coast waters. But the cumulative effect of their annual reintroductions to degraded reefs could have tremendous implications both for the environmental and economic future of the Gulf Coast.

Some 400,000 oysters have been planted in these reefs since the program's inception in 2001.

But again, the fate of this effort — at least for the foreseeable future — will all depend on what transpires within the next few days as crews struggle to contain the spill.

So long as clean water is available, the oysters have a fighting chance of surviving and ultimately achieving the purposes for which they were spawned in the first place. On the other hand, if large volumes of oil spread, the fortunes of these juvenile oysters could be greatly compromised, and, as a result, the project undermined for the near future.

"If the oil continues to leak for another 90 days, the loss will be unimaginable," Water says.

With the next few days, BP will deploy a 125-ton structure, known as the Subsea Oil Recovery System, to capture the largest leaking oil. The system is designed to collect the leaking oil, pumping it through a funnel and pipe into a tanker, which stores and subsequently transports the oil to shore.

"It's really important that they get this shut off," Waters says, adding that wind and waves are playing a modest role in dispersing the spill.

The more oil that is dispersed or collected, the better, he says.

"While they [the oysters] may not be fit for human consumption, they may survive and continue to do a good job of filtering the water," he says.

The spill is only the latest of countless challenges Waters and other professionals and volunteers have faced, though it may likely prove to be the most serious one of all.

The number of volunteers associated the effort has declined recent years, partly due to the effects of hurricanes Ivan and Katrina in 2004 and 2005, respectively. The storms wrecked the peers of many volunteers — essential equipment associated with oyster gardening — and many have been unable to rebuild.

However, the numbers of volunteers have rebounded substantially in the last couple of years, Waters says.

In addition to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, other partners include the Oyster Gardening Project, the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, Weeks Bay Reserve and Mobile Baykeeper.

The 2010 sponsors include Organized Seafood Association of Alabama, the Sybil H. Smith Charitable Trust and Wintzell's Oyster House.