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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

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Gulf coast looks to maintain, restore oysters

Gulf coast looks to maintain, restore oysters

MONROE, La. (AP) — The oyster dressing is safe this year.

Since the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, 4 billion to 8.3 billion subtidal oysters were estimated to be lost across the Gulf coast. Many states are struggling.

Louisiana is the only state producing at a level at or higher than before the spill, according to Seth Blitch, The Nature Conservancy's Director of Coastal and Marine Conservation in Louisiana.

"Oysters Gulfwide are kind of in a bad spot, but Louisiana is actually sort of the bright spot in terms of commercial production of oysters. Louisiana produces more oysters than any other state in the country, which is good," Blitch said.

TNC recently released a report on oyster restoration in the Gulf. According to the report, there's been about a 50 percent to 85 percent oyster loss throughout the Gulf when compared to historic levels.

The oyster industry pulls about $220 million to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The decrease could affect not only oyster harvesters but restaurants and industries that use the shell, such as using it to supplement chicken feed.

The Gulf produces more oysters than anywhere else in the U.S., but there are challenges to restoring and maintaining production, including:

— changes to freshwater flow along the Gulf,

— sedimentation from more frequent storms,

— inconsistent replacement of oyster bedding material, called "cultch," and

— heavy fishing.

Earlier in November, the state of Alabama announced there would be no oyster harvest in state waters because of a lack of supply.

Scott Bannon, director of the Marine Resources Division of Alabama's conservancy agency, said a weeklong season in 2017 produced 136 sacks of oysters, according to an Associated Press report. In 2013, 7,000 sacks were harvested, Bannon said.

"They felt like they couldn't open it and have any oysters survive," Blitch said.

He pointed to Apalachicola Bay in the Florida panhandle, a bay that at one time produced 90 percent of Florida's oysters and about 10 percent of the nation's.

"But it doesn't anymore," Blitch said. “It's fallen on really hard times just in the last four or five years."

Mississippi, he said, produced about 20,000 sacks of oysters last year. Fifteen years ago, the state produced almost half a million sacks in a season.

In Texas, TNC is launching two oyster reef restoration projects — a 60-acre reef restoration project in Copano Bay and one for a 50-acre reef in Galveston Bay. Half of each will be designated as a marine sanctuary, and the other half will be available for harvest and open for commercial fishing.

"Louisiana is unique in that most of the oysters that we produce come off of private commercial leases, meaning individual or companies will lease submerged land — coastal lands — from the state and then they will actually, at their expense, put material on the bottom of that site," Blitch said.

Oysters tend to live in estuaries that have a mix of salt and fresh water. Larvae oysters attach to cultch like rock or shell and develop until they're harvested.

"Ideally, that's shell because oysters grow on each other. ... But shell is in short supply," Blitch said. Restaurants will put them in the landfill, and shucking houses sell it as part of chicken feed or other supply options. "There's an economic incentive to keep it and sell it."

"Well over 90 percent of Louisiana's production comes from those leases. Even though there are public areas that you can harvest too, most of it comes off of leases," Blitch said.

Blitch said there's a lot possible when reefs are valued for more than shell and meat. Oysters contribute to the habitat of other animals and protect landmasses from erosion.

Oysters filter water to feed and help maintain and improve water quality.

"Plus they're a delicious treat too, and they're the livelihood for a lot of people who harvest seafood," Blitch said.


Information from: The News-Star,