Oysters killed to keep oil at bay

by Mary Tutwiler

What is good for coastal restoration is killing the state's oyster beds. What is good for coastal restoration is killing the state's oyster beds.That's the complaint from oystermen, who are asking that the state scale back the freshwater diversion projects, which have been running full bore since BP's Deepwater Horizon exploded in April.

The governor ordered all freshwater diversion gates opened, allowing the Mississippi River to send torrents of water into the brackish bays on either side of the river, theorizing that the thrust of the river would push back the encroaching oil. Whether the river held back any oil is up for discussion, but a consequence of the deluge of fresh water is massive oyster kills in some of the most productive reefs in the state. Members of the state's Oyster Task Force have been calling for a reduction of the freshwater flow, currently up to 8,000 cubic feet per second at the Davis Pond diversion, 16 times its regular flow, which is blasting water into Barataria Bay.

The upside of keeping the diversion gates open is that along with the water, tons of sediment from the Mississippi are washing into the bays, helping build land lost to saltwater intrusion. Freshwater helps marsh grasses take root, binding the soil, building land. Mixing freshwater with the salty tide restores the brackish balance that once built the Mississippi Delta, which is now collapsing. Scientists point to the healthy Atchafalaya River Delta, which, with its mix of fresh and salt water continues to grow.

In a story today in the Houma Daily Comet, Nicholls State oyster biologist Earl Melancon is calling for a reduction of the Davis Pond flow. Melancon told the Comet that up to 50 percent of the state's oyster crop has already been killed. Louisiana produces more oysters than any other state in the nation; the oyster industry adds $300 million to the state's economy yearly.

Oysters take two to three years to grow to market size. The state is already looking at a three to five year time period before beds killed by the freshwater can set spawn and be harvested. And that can only happen if the flow of freshwater is reduced now.

While oyster fishers are calling for the flow to be reduced, there is virtually nothing they can do to address the problem other than asking. A 2003 lawsuit, filed by oyster fishers with state leases, who sued the state over the opening of the freshwater diversion projects, resulted in a $2 billion award to the plaintiffs being overturned and the state's "hold harmless" provision upheld. Oyster lease holders who claimed the freshwater killed their reefs received nothing.

This is the situation they find themselves in today. Meanwhile the diversions continue to pump water, hopefully building land. However the results of the diversions' work has yet to be measured.

This is a difficult line for the state to walk, balancing the needs of the historic oyster industry with the catastrophe of the eroding coastline. The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and the resulting oil spill will become a footnote when compared with the struggle to restore the coast and sustain the cultural heritage and livelihoods of those who live and work there.