New Oyster Advisory Committee to plot industry recovery from oil spillOct 5th, 2010 | By Frank McCormack | Category: news
Garret Graves, chairman of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) and Governor Bobby Jindal’s top coastal advisor, announced Sept. 29 the creation of a new Oyster Advisory Committee to help plot the oyster industry’s path to recovery from the BP oil spill.
Much of Louisiana’s seafood industry was brought to a standstill after the April 20 explosion aboard BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig as both the state and the federal government closed fishing grounds due to the threat of oil.
But as the oil spill unfolded, the oyster industry was faced with a second and more deadly foe – a surge of freshwater from river diversions opened in an attempt to flush oil out of the marsh.
Oysters depend on a salinity level of around 25 parts per million to survive. Though many oyster beds were left untouched by oil, the immobile mollusks nonetheless fell prey to an influx of freshwater, which sharply dropped salinity levels and killed the algae on which oysters feed.
Many oyster fishermen have reported a near total loss due to the spill and subsequent surge of freshwater. Because of that, though the vast majority of both state and federal fishing grounds have been reopened since the spill, the state’s oyster industry is still idled. It could be years before the industry is fully recovered.
“If you take the overall figure of my 15,000 acres [of oyster leases], probably 75 percent are dead,” St. Bernard oyster fisherman Brad Robin said. “It’s going to be between three and five years to get it back to where it was when the spill hit. It could be 10 years before it’s back to normal. Hopefully, people are listening.”
Graves made it clear that the state recognizes how hard the oyster industry was hit by the spill and that state leaders are committed to the industry’s recovery.
“The oyster industry was severely impacted by the spill, and it is crucial for the state to look at how we can provide assistance and aide in preserving such an important industry to our state,” Graves said.
The oyster industry is a significant boon for the state of Louisiana. According to CPRA, the Gulf Coast produces 70 percent of the oysters harvested in the United States, and Louisiana produces more oysters than all other Gulf states combined. Louisiana oyster fishermen harvested more than $34 million worth of oysters in 2009 alone.
And state support will be crucial since BP has, thus far, not committed to compensating oyster fishermen, in part because it was the state’s diversions and not oil that killed most of the oysters.
The committee will also be an advocate for the oyster industry as the state pushes forward with vital coastal restoration projects, many of which could threaten current oyster habitat.
“We feel it is critical to move forward with restoring and protecting coastal Louisiana, but we must also consider how our efforts impact industries in the coastal zone of the state,” Graves said.
Increased flow rates and the construction of additional freshwater diversions could render some current oyster leases unsustainable, and sediment pumping could cover over some oyster reefs with sand.
Jerome Zeringue, a CPRA representative on the new committee, told oyster fishermen at a town hall meeting in Belle Chasse last week that diversions were here to stay.
“I don’t want to mislead you in any way. Diversions will be a component of what the state and federal government uses to restore and revitalize the marsh,” said Zeringue, who added that proper management of diversions was most crucial.
Zeringue said that, although diversions could render some leases unsustainable, the state and oyster industry could work together to restore other oyster harvesting areas no longer in use.
PJ Hahn, director of coastal zone management for Plaquemines Parish, voiced his support for diversions, albeit under certain circumstances.
“We are not against diversions,” Hahn said. “We’re against large scale diversions.”
Hahn added that more local control over diversions was needed moving forward.
“These people know that area better than anyone,” he said.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, who spoke at length at the Sept 29 town hall meeting, echoed that call for local involvement.
“These diversions are going to need to have local involvement to the fullest,” Nungesser said. “More than one seat at the table on these diversions has got to happen.”
Nungesser vowed to work to make the same true for all coastal restoration and flood protection projects, even those led by the Corps of Engineers.
The newly-formed 15-member oyster committee will be made up of representatives from the oyster industry – including Robin and Braithwaite resident Kenny Fox – as well as representatives from the oil and gas industry, coastal landowners, CPRA, Wildlife and Fisheries and two elected officials.
The committee will hold its first meeting Oct. 6 in New Orleans.