Oyster harvests at historic low

Oyster harvests at historic low

Oyster harvests at historic low

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wwltv.com

Posted on November 23, 2012 at 4:33 PM

Nikki Buskey / HoumaToday.com

HOUMA, La. - Commercial oyster harvests in important fishing grounds east of the Mississippi River have reached historic lows, state wildlife officials said.

Those grounds typically provide almost 50 percent of the state’s oyster harvest. But crops were wiped out after the BP oil spill in 2010, and unsuccessful reproductive cycles since then have failed to replenished stocks, worrying state wildlife officials and the oyster industry.

The oyster industry is producing about 35 percent of the oysters it would during a normal year, officials said.

“These are the most productive public grounds in Louisiana. I’d say they’re some of the most productive oyster grounds in the world,” said Mike Voisin, owner of Motivatit Seafood oyster company in Houma and a member of the state’s Wildlife and Fisheries Commission. “It’s a cause for concern, and we have to look closely and figure out why this is happening.”

Oysters are not only of culinary and cultural importance in Louisiana; the state’s oyster industry employs about 3,500 Louisianans and has an estimated $300 million annual impact on the state economy.

Fifty percent the state’s oyster grounds were wiped out during the BP oil spill. Many oysters were killed when the state opened up freshwater diversions on the Mississippi River to push oil out of wetlands. Oysters need salty water to survive. A river flood in 2011 devastated even more oyster grounds.

Though oysters in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes are still faring well, most oyster grounds impacted by the spill have not recovered.

Oyster harvests east of the Mississippi River were near historic highs in 2009, but a dramatic decrease in spat sets and adult oysters have public officials concerned.

Scientists have been trying to understand why there have been no successful reproductive cycles, called spats, when larval oysters attach to the hard bottom and begin to grow.

Only after Hurricane Isaac did scientists begin to see some growth again, Voisin said.

“We are monitoring the conditions as we have historically done and have seen the amount of harvestable sack-sized oysters decrease over the last few years,” said Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham. “The science is consistent with what we have heard from some oyster fishermen and dealers in anecdotal reports. Despite some claims that have been made publicly, the oyster industry has not been made whole. We have a long way to go before we know the full scope of impacts in the Gulf, but what we are currently seeing worries us.”

Wildlife and Fisheries officials say data gathered through biologists’ observations confirms ongoing issues with oyster stocks, but a direct cause is not evident.

Scientists are also studying the spill’s impact on oysters through the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, a legal process that seeks to document all damage caused by the disaster. That information is used to create a restoration plan aimed at bringing the Gulf back to pre-spill conditions.

That study is ongoing, and results are not available.

Voisin said oyster population crashes like this have happened before, including one he could recall during the 1980s. But the fishery recovered and a few years later oysters came back in record numbers.

“We’ve seen ups and downs in this area before,” he said. “The question everyone asks is it’s Deepwater Horizon. The timing is odd but the science will tell us if there’s a direct correlation.”

In the meantime, he said, industry officials are moving forward with new farming techniques that may help the industry recover. New regulations will allow for off-bottom growth of oysters on private farms, which can produce oysters faster.

In addition, the state has rehabilitated oyster grounds with cultch, limestone or shell material placed on the bottom to create a hard surface for oyster larvae to attach to.

“We’re putting things in place that will allow us to overcome this,” Voisin said.

Nikki Buskey can be reached at 857-2205 or nicole.buskey@houmatoday.com.

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