Maya Rodriguez / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- Nearly one year after the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one aspect of the Louisiana seafood industry is still in the fight for its life.
On Friday, state biologists updated coastal protection leaders and oyster fishermen about high mortality rates among oysters in waters affected by last year's spill.
The study, which began last summer, focused on the waters of Breton Sound -- stretching out 20 miles east of the Mississippi River -- and in the Barataria Basin, to the west of the river.
"We found, in general, we had higher than normal oyster mortality," said Patrick Banks, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
The waters, especially on the east side of the river, were subject to a one-two punch: they were affected by the oil spill and hit with fresh water diversions, meant to help keep oil out of the marshes. Not only did scientists find dead oysters, but they also found very little oyster spat.
"To have an entire calendar year, where we see virtually no spat on our public grounds, is not a normal occurrence," Banks said. "And in both of those basins, throughout 2010, we did see a far much reduced level of spat fall in those two basins."
The low amount of spat creates another problem, since it takes at least three years for oyster spat to mature. For local businesses like P & J Oyster Company, the immediate future looks bleak.
"We haven't shucked since last June and it has everything to do with having the oysters available to us to do that," said Al Sunseri, co-owner of P & J Oyster Company. "I'm in a state of flux all the time. I don't know how to manage my business for any kind of long-term affair."
That is why the state is now moving ahead with a program to replace spat in areas where there is none.
"One of the things we want to do is to have the cultch materials and build them, already have the oysters attached to them, tiny spat, tiny cultch and put it out there," said Randy Pausina, assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "Or we can actually go out there with a hose and actually put it down on the bottom and actually spray the spat on to the reefs, to better the chance of them catching."
State biologists collected more than 2,000 oysters in the mortality study. They said they are not sure what caused the oysters to die. However, they say it is possible fresh water diversions affected the salinity of the water -- since the closer to land and the diversions, the worse the mortality rate appeared to be.
Tests are now ongoing to check for any toxicity in the water.