Oyster industry looks to the future

by Mary Tutwiler

Of all the fisheries impacted by the BP oil spill, the ones hardest hit are the state's oyster reefs.

Of all the fisheries impacted by the BP oil spill, the ones hardest hit are the state's oyster reefs. Not only was oil drifting ashore a threat, but the state's attempts to push the oil away from the coast by opening all of the freshwater diversions caused a 50 percent mortality in oyster beds. (See the Ind cover story, The Last Harvest.)

Now as oystermen and state biologists talk about how to rebuild the reefs, there is a lot of discussion about turning to aquaculture techniques used in other parts of the country.

The first order of business falls into the big picture category. Ever since a 2003 billion-dollar award to oyster fishermen who filed suit against the state for destroying their beds with freshwater diversions was overturned and a hold-harmless clause was adopted by the state Legislature to allow coastal restoration projects to proceed without the threat of lawsuits, oyster fishermen and their beds on leases that had crept farther and farther inland, into the state's bays, have been at risk.

Currently, the state is planning to implement as many as 14 new freshwater diversions off the Mississippi River to restore wetlands. That means many oyster beds will be in even more jeopardy from freshwater due to coastal restoration programs than they were during the spill.

With as much as $15 million in BP money promised to rebuild oyster reefs, state biologists and oyster fishers are looking at several different approaches at restoring the oyster industry. The first, outlined by Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Patrick Banks, in the Houma Courier, is simply to rebuild existing reefs with crushed oyster shell and limestone, then seeding the reef with oyster sprats, which will take three years to reach market size.

Surprisingly, the response from oyster fishermen, who currently hold state leases on water bottoms for as little as $2 an acre, is to turn their back on tradition, and look to other techniques, which involve suspending oysters in bags and baskets or on poles and ropes, all of which can be moved to marine environments where the salinity level is favorable to growing oysters. Suspending the oysters higher in the water column also prevents predators, like snails, from drilling into the shells, keeps sediment from smothering the bivalves, and provides a better, cleaner water quality.

I saw the suspension technique myself, on a trip to New Brunswick several years ago. For miles along the sandy shores of the Acadian Peninsula, oysters were grown in suspended baskets easily harvested when they had reached market size. I spent the week eating those oysters, small, sharply briny with a sweet finish, crisp and delicious, at nearly every meal. I  can attest to their excellence. The downside, of course, is it's expensive because the techniques are more labor intensive than letting mother nature grow oysters on the bottom of the Gulf.

But it's encouraging to hear the spokesmen for Louisiana's oyster industry embracing the future rather than digging in to preserve the ways of the past. "We can look beyond tradition and change who we are," Mike Voisin, an oyster fisherman and member of the state's Oyster Advisory Committee told the Houma Courier. "We will always be a bottom-culture industry, but we also need to begin looking at the way things are done in other states and countries."

Our culture, as well as our seafood industry depends on keeping an open mind as we attempt to solve the enormity of our coastal problems. For these most traditional of fishermen to offer solutions rather than resistance is a bright light in a complex environmental situation.