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Aquaculture Likely to Play Big Role in Oyster Rebirth

Gulfport, Louisiana


GULFPORT -- Last fall the Commission on Marine Resources saw an underwater video from one of the oyster reefs managed by the agency. It looked more like a rural gravel road. Not an oyster in site.

This could be one of the worst oyster seasons in years with a harvest about one-tenth the size of the good years before Katrina. There were no oysters harvested the year after Katrina, and just 65 sacks the year after the Bonnet Carre spillway was opened during the Mississippi River flood and poured freshwater, deadly to oysters, over the Mississippi Sound's oyster reefs. The year before Katrina, more than 400,000 sacks were taken. Last year, there were 70,000 sacks harvested. This year is starting slow, too.

"Over the decade since Katrina, we've just had a series of manmade and natural disasters," said Department of Marine Resources Director Jamie Miller. "Before Katrina, we were doing more than 400,000 sacks. This year we'll do about 5 percent of that, about 20,000 sacks.

"Some of it is out of our control, the natural process just has to do its thing. What we

want to focus on is to make sure we're producing some more of what will happen naturally to get some synthetic production."

Miller and Gov. Phil Bryant both said Mississippi should support oysters the way it does other crops, Bryant went so far as to call them the "soybean of the sea."

"We need to invest university structure, federal resources and state resources," Miller said Bryant told him.

Recent harvests have been so bad that one of the Coast's largest oyster processors can't always meet all their customer's needs.

Bryant on Monday created the Governor's Oyster Restoration and Resiliency Council to come up with a plan to reverse the downward trend. Its work is supposed to be done by May 1.

Sometime in May, Crystal Seas Seafood, the Pass Christian processor with the supply problem, will start its own oyster restoration work, starting them on tanks near the water then planting them on offshore reefs. It's a method that has kept other state's reefs heathy, said Crystal Seas manager Jennifer Jenkins.

And it's the other states that have kept Crystal Seas supplied through those lean years.

"All along the Gulf and the East Coast," she said. "Mainly Virginia and Maryland.

"In some places where the oysters have been severely depleted, they've done huge restoration projects."

She said Mississippi could do more to revive its oysters.

"They have been rebuilding new reefs by just putting out cultch material, which most of the time consists of oyster shells or limestone," Jenkins said. "Some of the other states ... have done a spat-on-shell program, taking it one or two steps further."

That's done by putting larvae in tanks of water and shells. The larvae attach to the shells, which are then placed on reefs in the water.

Crystal Seas plans to do their own program in the spring when the water warms.

If the state were to start a similar program, which is one of the mandates of Bryant's executive order creating the council, there is no limit to the number of oysters the South could produce, Jenkins said.

"The goal is to get it up to a million sacks of oysters by 2025," said Dave Dennis, who was chosen by the governor to lead the council, and believes aquaculture should play a role. "We trying to fix it up so there are other areas, not just the area where when the Bonnet Carre spillway opens up it washes through. As much as anything, Aquaculture is a viable opportunity. It may be in existing waters, it may be in other areas."

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