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Health Department Closes Oyster Areas Due To Spillway Freshwater

Travis Lux
Oyster harvester Mitch Jurisich holds two dead oysters on a boat near Empire, Louisiana. Jurisich says weeks of freshwater from the flooding Mississippi River have killed many of the oysters on his leases this year.

Louisiana’s Department of Health is shutting down several oyster harvesting areas due to low salinity caused by a steady influx of freshwater from the Bonnet Carre Spillway. 

The spillway, which diverts flood water from the Mississippi River into Lake Pontchartrain, has been open for more than 95 days this year. That’s kept a steady stream of fresh water flowing into areas where oysters grow.

Oysters need a mix of fresh and salty water to grow properly, preferring salinities between 8 and 15 parts per thousand. They can tolerate fluctuation, but long stretches outside that range can weaken and kill them. 

Justin Gremillion, Chief Sanitarian of Specialty Operations at the Louisiana Department of Health, says any oysters that die during transportation after harvest are susceptible to contracting bacteria and viruses that can be harmful to humans.

“We don’t want to see that,” says Gremillion. “If any of [those dead oysters] were to accidentally slip through the system, we could potentially end up with a foodborne illness.”

After extensive water sampling for both bacteria and salinity, the health department is closing Areas 1, 2, and part of Area 3 -- which encompasses Lake Borne and its surroundings -- as a precautionary measure.


Credit Louisiana Department of Health
Louisiana Department of Health
Louisiana's Department of Health has closed oyster harvest Areas 1, 2 , and part of Area 3, due to low salinity. The closure was issued July 3rd, 2019, and is effective July 6th.

Gremillion stresses the precautionary nature of the decision -- that oysters from those areas are not inherently unsafe for consumption at the moment, but are at higher risk during transportation. Many of the state’s other oyster harvesting areas are still open, and Gremillion says any oysters found at local restaurants are safe to eat. 

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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