Part of Louisiana's master plan to fight coastal erosion calls for river sediment diversion, but many of the state's oyster fishermen strongly oppose that part of the plan, saying it will destroy their fisheries and fail to build much land.
Lifelong oyster fisherman Van Robin is one of those in the industry who is deeply concerned about the state's plan.
In a boat built for speed, Robin moves slowly through the harbor at Hopedale Marina as he describes what he thinks government should be doing to save what it can of Louisiana's vanishing wetlands.
“I feel that we need to build islands out here," he said. "We need to build land, reinforce the land that's here already."
Robin points out that the land along an inlet near Hopedale is several feet above water – perfect for building up and saving before it's too late.
“Where they had islands that used to exist 10 years ago, 5 years ago, 20 years ago, put the islands back in,” Robin said.
He says the way to do that is simple: “Build them with rock. Take and get some boulders from out of Kentucky. Big barges, big, you can get them in massive amounts to come down the Mississippi River."
Robin says the land causes eddies that stir the fresh and salt water, making it brackish – perfect for growing oysters.
And he says building land the way he wants is a faster, more efficient than the government plan for river diversion. Plus, he says pollution from the river will kill Louisiana's oyster industry. “The river is too toxic, too polluted,” he said.
Robin, the director of Oyster Fisheries Incorporated, says pollution has already ruined other waterways that once had highly productive oyster fisheries.
“Mobile Bay has died off. Apalachicola is dying off. Parts of Galveston Bay have died off from pollution. Chesapeake Bay died off,” he says. “The pollution ends up in our ecosystem, ends up in our estuaries, and nothing grows back.”
There's a different situation on those occasions when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opens the Bonnet Carre' Spillway to divert high water from the Mississippi into Lake Pontchartrain according to Robin.
“That water goes through Lake Maurepas, Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne, then through the Biloxi marsh area. It done got filtered. But if we just introduce it straight into our estuaries, it's toxic.”
Out in the open water where he takes us in Christmas Camp Lake east of Lake Borgne, we came upon one of Robin's oyster harvesting crews. Oyster wholesale distributor Ram Miller cracks open a raw oyster on the fishing boat and says, “That's Louisiana's finest right there.”
The oyster boat circles around a cane pole jammed into a reef as the crew dredges for oysters.
“The dredge acts as the rake,” Miller explains. “And we stay making a circle, just like a farmer would, plowing the ground or making his crop. We pretty much (are) just farming in the water.”
The crew feeds us oysters right out of the water as they explain the process that leads to the harvest.
“We get crushed concrete or limestone,” oyster fisherman Marty Melerine, Jr. says. “And we put it in the water and the baby oysters hook to the limestone or the concrete, and then three years later, you got this,” he says as he points to a table full of big, harvested oysters ready for the market.
They break off the large, full grown oysters; throw the smaller ones and rock back into the water.
Ram Miller says the crew harvests 200 to 300 sacks of oysters a day. Each sack is filled with 85 to 100 oysters.
“These oysters will be in the city of New Orleans in about three-and-a-half hours, fresh product,” Miller says.
But Marty Melerine and the others here are afraid this vibrant, thriving industry – providing oysters to Louisiana, the Gulf coast and beyond – is dying.
“Our ancestors settled this place in 1778, so we've been here ever since,” Melerine says. “We don't want to leave. I have two sons, can't do this. It's sad. It's sad. I got them in college. They can't (do this). Why?” he says. “Because it's not going to be here in 50 years from now for them to feed their family.”
At a time when part of the government's plan to fight coastal erosion calls for river sediment diversion, these oyster fishermen say that process is too slow, too ineffective to restore vanishing wetlands. Worse, they say the impact will destroy their way of life -- kill a robust, valuable part of Louisiana's economy.
A spokesman for Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Chuck Perrodin, disagrees.
“We're trying to work with the oyster industry to see how and where we can move the oyster leases,” Perrodin said. “We (the state of Louisiana) don't want to harm anything.”
Currently he said the “greatest part” of the master plan continues to be dredging, “more than four to one. But those are short time fixes. We have to do the long term fixes.”
Perrodin points out river diversion built all the land south of Missouri. He says that is more of a long-term fix that will help replenish vanishing wetlands.