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Oysters not expected to survive flooding
By Karen Templeton
MSU Ag Communications
BILOXI – The oyster industry is bracing for extreme losses as freshwater from the Mississippi River flows into the western portion of the Mississippi Sound.
“Oysters are stationary and cannot escape as the freshwater displaces the salt water they need,” said Dave Burrage, professor of marine resources with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “Oysters just cannot survive long periods of freshwater, so we are expecting significant mortality, maybe even 100 percent.”
Mobile species, such as crabs, shrimp and finfish, will be able to escape the floodwaters entering the Mississippi Sound.
The industry was already facing serious challenges, as dredging of the reefs was prohibited during the 2010-2011 season.
“There was high mortality on the reefs last year. It has been difficult to determine the cause, but it may have been from higher-than-normal water temperatures,” Burrage said. “The oysters needed more time to grow to legal harvest size, so there were obviously some concerns about over-dredging the reefs. The Commission of Marine Resources voted to open the season to tonging only, which yielded lower numbers.”
Oyster harvesting begins in mid-October and runs through mid-April. The 2010-2011 harvest was disappointing, with only 43,702 sacks landed. Oysters sold this year for about $30 a sack, close to previous years’ prices.
“Before Hurricane Katrina, the Mississippi oyster industry landed approximately 300,000 sacks a year,” Burrage said. “But the hurricane caused a 90 percent oyster loss, and the industry has just taken one hit after another, so the landings aren’t as good.”
With the flooding into the Sound expected to continue into June, it is unlikely that there will be a 2011-2012 oyster harvest.
“It takes about 18 to 24 months for oysters to establish and grow to legal size,” said Scott Gordon, director of the Department of Marine Fisheries’ Shellfish Bureau. “The earliest the oyster industry can expect to harvest will be in 2013.”
With the uncertainty of the state’s oyster industry over the last six years, many oystermen have continued to diversify in order to survive the tough times.
“Many in our state’s fleet have expanded into other businesses and also shrimp and crab or have shore jobs,” Gordon said. “The good news for those who also shrimp is that the brown shrimp season opened this week, earlier than usual.”