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Katrina, BP, 2019 Mississippi River -- Oyster Industry Braces For Another Major Disaster

Travis Lux
Oyster harvester Mitch Jurisich picks up two dead oysters from a pile of freshly harvested oysters in Empire, Louisiana.

The commercial fishing industry on the Gulf Coast has seen two major disasters in the last 15 years: Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. Now, some fear we’re on the cusp of a third. The culprit: historic flooding from the Mississippi River.

Commercial oysterman Mitch Jurisich is picking through a pile of freshly harvested oysters at a dock in Empire, Louisiana. One hand clutches an oyster knife, the other grabs a bivalve from the top of the mound.

“This one's good right here,” he says before tossing it aside and picking up another. “This one's not good.”

There’s a noticeable difference in the appearance of the “good” and “not good” oysters. The healthy ones are brownish-grey in color, shells tightly sealed. Those are hard to come by in this pile. Most in the pile are black, shells open and loose -- nothing inside them but mud and rotten meat.

“If I had to look at this pile right here, you could probably say 90 percent is pretty much dead,” says Jurisich.

Oysters are dying across coastal Louisiana and Mississippi. The killer: flooding from the Mississippi River.

Credit Travis Lux / WWNO
Mitch Jurisich holds two dead oysters on a boat in Empire, LA. Healthy oyster shells are typically brownish in color, but these, Jurisich says, have been blackened by prolonged exposure to fresh water. Flooding from the Mississippi River has caused massive oyster die offs in both Louisiana and Mississippi.

Oysters thrive in the brackish waters of the Gulf Coast, where the salinity of the estuary changes throughout the year. Oysters can handle fluctuations, but they also can’t move -- so if their environment gets too salty or too fresh for too long, they can die.

“Other species have a tail, have legs...they can somewhat get out the way,” says Jurisich of the oyster’s predicament. “So this poor oyster’s got to sit there...he's just got to take it on the chin.”

The Mississippi River has been flooding for months -- mostly due to heavy rains and snowmelt in the Midwest. In November 2018, the Army Corps of Engineers initiated "flood fight" procedures, inspecting the river levees between Baton Rouge and New Orleans twice a week, looking for structural issues like leaks.

All that fresh water eventually washes into coastal marshes -- either out the mouth of the Mississippi River or through the Bonnet Carre Spillway, which diverts floodwater into Lake Pontchartrain. Bonnet Carre, which until this year had never been opened twice in the same year, has been open for more than 90 days in 2019 -- an all-time record.

Credit Travis Lux / WWNO
The Bonnet Carre Spillway, located upriver of New Orleans in Norco, LA, just before it was opened in 2018. The spillway diverts floodwater from the Mississippi River into Lake Pontchartrain. It has been open for more than 90 days, and has contributed to the freshwater inundation of oyster harvesting areas in Louisiana and Mississippi.

After weeks without saltwater, oysters are dying en masse. According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, by early June the oyster harvest from Louisiana’s public oyster grounds was down 80% compared to the year-to-date average. Officials in Mississippi say 70% of their oysters have perished.

Many in the oyster industry, like Jurisich and Jenkins, expect those numbers to increase as coastal waters warm and the algal blooms reduce the amount of oxygen in the water.

It’s not just oyster harvesters who are affected, it's the whole industry: restaurants, distributors, and processors.

“If we don't have oysters we don't have much of anything to do,” says Jennifer Jenkins, owner of Crystal Seas Seafood, an oyster processing company in Pass Chrisitan, Mississippi. Crystal Seas buys oysters from harvesters like Jurisich, cleans them, and resells them shucked and whole to bigger companies, like chain restaurants.

Jenkins says she’s had a hard time filling her orders lately. There just aren’t enough oysters in the region. Last week, she says, a major restaurant chain stopped doing business with her.

“They're not quite positive about how they feel about the quality of oysters that are being harvested right now,” she said of that company’s decision.

Jenkins worries she might have to shut down for a few months, something she’s only done twice before: after Hurricane Katrina and during the BP oil spill.

Oysterman Mitch Jurisich thinks the oyster harvest could remain low for several more years, since it takes an oyster about three years to reach maturity. Best case scenario, he says, some areas could recover as quickly as two years from now, but fears most areas are three to five years away from the "heavy oyster production" the industry has seen in recent years.

Louisiana Sea Grant executive director Robert Twilley says this year’s flooding is “unprecedented.” He says the region has had high rivers before, but it’s never seen one that’s lasted this long -- or this late into the summer. However, he says estuaries and the critters that live in them are pretty resilient.

“The fish will be back,” he says of the oysters, shrimp, and other impacted estuarine species, “...and it could be next year. But that doesn't help the fishermen who's trying to pay their bills right now.”

There could be some help on the horizon. The governors of both Louisiana and Mississippi have declared fisheries disasters, which could help some in the commercial fishing industry make up for some of their losses, but any potential money is several months away and would have to eventually be appropriated by congress.

Longer term, as climate change continues to fuel extreme events like the Mississippi River flooding, Twilley says the industry will need to adapt. That could mean growing oysters in new locations, for example, or using different equipment. Oysterman Mitch Jurisich says commercial fishers have been adapting for generations.

“Maybe not to this magnitude,” he says of the historic flooding this year, “but you've seen changes. You know, one thing about these this whole environment -- we evolve with it. We change as the coast changes.”

He just hopes he can keep up.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and local listeners.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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