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Q&A: How Louisiana's Oyster Industry Could Get A $132 Million Boost

A specially cultivated oyster from the waters around Grand Isle.
Ian McNulty

Oysters are a staple of Louisiana’s culture and cuisine, but because of storms, engineering and river flooding, the industry has been struggling for decades.

Now oyster farmers and fishers might be getting some help from the state.

New Orleans Public Radio talked with The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate coastal reporterMark Schleifstein about the plan, which still needs to be approved by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Oyster Task Force.

Tegan Wendland: There are many factors making it hard to raise and harvest oysters on the Louisiana coast these days. Over the past 10 years, the state has opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway six times when the Mississippi River has been high in order to avoid the river flooding the city. But that has turned brackish oyster beds fresh and killed a lot of them. What are some of the other reasons for the decline?

Mark Schleifstein: Well, one of the biggest ones is the hurricanes that have occurred over the last 10, 15 years, beginning with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which really ripped up the wetlands. Another problem that hit the oyster growers was in 2010 when the BP oil spill occurred. The state decided that they wanted to try to keep oil out of the wetlands, and the way to do that was to turn on all these diversions that flooded all these oyster beds with fresh water ... and the result of that was that the oyster beds were really seriously damaged then. And it's been a problem for them to recover ever since.

It's pretty hard to quantify, but how much have harvests declined over the past couple of decades?

It's been a real problem and the state has estimated that we've seen a 92 percent drop in the state's harvests over the past 20 years. And just in the last year, between 2018 and 2019, there's been another 6 percent drop. So it's a continuing problem.

Now state officials are outlining a pretty elaborate plan to support the industry, including phasing out some unproductive oyster beds, rehabilitating other areas, creating more spawning grounds and even engineering oysters to be able to tolerate fresh water. So how much would all this cost and how likely is it to work?

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries came up with this plan and they've estimated it is going to cost $132 million, for a variety of different things. A lot of it is hard projects that they're going to do, basically adding oyster cultch to two areas — cultch is this hard material that oysters can grow on — and also providing money to start growing oysters in new ways and cages in water that's in the right salinity.

It sounds like a pretty long-term plan. How likely is it to work?

It is long-term. And one of the things that's very difficult for the state to figure out is what the effects will be if the state is successful in building these two major sediment diversions (Mid-Barataria and Mid-Breton) that will put sediment and quite a bit of freshwater into the areas where oysters are now grown — and whether or not it can control the timeframe for when the freshwater gets in there, whether or not they're able to find new areas where oysters can grow, where the diversions will be less likely to hurt them. And whether or not this idea for this new salinity-resistant oyster will actually work to begin with, and secondly, produce an oyster that is tasty enough that the public will want it.

Where's all this money going to come from? Would it potentially mean less for other coastal restoration projects?

The answer is yes and no. The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has identified different pots of money that will be available over the next 10 and 15 years in response to the BP oil spill. They're also looking at other funds that Wildlife and Fisheries already has to help the oyster growing program and fees of the oyster growers themselves that they pay for using state water bottoms.

How are oyster producers responding to this big plan?

Well, they like parts of it and they really dislike other parts of it. The key pieces that they really don't like are the idea of having to give quite a bit of information about the success or failure of individual oyster leases. They see themselves as having a vested interest in the water bottoms, which are actually owned by the state. They see that basically as a property right, and it might be difficult to get them to agree to some of those provisions.

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

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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