Oysters versus coastal restoration

by Mary Tutwiler

What is good for oysters, salinity, is bad for wetlands. What is good for oysters, salinity, is bad for wetlands. That's the juggling act currently going in Baton Rouge under the auspices of the newly formed Governor's Oyster Advisory Committee. The 15-member committee will include representatives of the oyster industry, the oil and gas industry, martime interests, coastal landowners, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration and legislators.

During the onslaught of the BP oil, Gov. Bobby Jindal ordered all the state's freshwater diversions to flow at full capacity, sending fresh water from the Mississippi River into bays and wetlands on both sides of the river to help prevent the oil coming into our marshes. Whether the pressure of the diversion's flows was enough to push back the oil is still up for debate, but what we do know is that the fresh water has a high mortality rate in the state's privately owned oyster beds.

The task of the Governor's Oyster Advisory Committee is to decide where and whether to reopen leasing in areas that are under consideration for flooding with fresh water from the diversions in order to rebuild coastal wetlands.

"We want to be able to start sketching out areas where at a minimum we should not reinvest, because of contaminated sediments from oil, or what the salinity levels look like, so that way you can at least start ruling areas out and start guiding people," Garret Graves, Jindal's coastal adviser, told the Times-Picayune.

Meanwhile oyster lease holders are trying to decide whether to reinvest, harvesting oyster sprats from public reefs to begin to rebuild their beds, a process that could take up to five years to grow market size oysters. They contend that the freshwater diversions don't carry enough sediment to actually rebuild land, while the consequence of keeping the diversions open is continued oyster bed mortality.

There's a terrific article in the Times-Picayune by writer Chris Kirkham laying out the history, from the leveeing of the Mississippi, which changed the salinity levels in bays, allowing oyster leases much further inland than ever before, which has contributed to coastal erosion, to the current crisis in the oyster industry. This is important reading for anyone interested in our coastline or eating Louisiana oysters.