Oysters: An industry nearly lost sees hope for future

Published 1:13 am Sunday, January 6, 2008

After taking a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina, the oyster industry is looking up in South Mississippi.

Scott Gordon, the shellfish bureau director for the Department of Marine Resources, said he is optimistic, and fishermen working out of the Pass Christian Harbor agree things are getting better.

Most of the oystermen in the Pass Harbor have been in the business all their lives. Even though they are harvesting only 10 percent of what they were bringing in before Katrina, the oystermen feel good about the harvest. Darlene Kimball, owner of Kimball’s Seafood, said she had been excited about the season from the beginning and that things are going well.

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Since the season opened in late September, 27,206 sacks of oysters have been harvested, according to DMR. There have been 2,249 trips taken out to the reefs.

Certain reefs are closed and the current limits of 20 sacks for dredgers and eights sacks for tongers are lower than usual, but DMR has extended the season as it sees fit, based on the reef conditions. DMR scientists responsible for managing the reefs and monitoring their health set the regulations.

Before the storm, there were 10,000 to 12,000 acres of oyster reefs. Between 90 and 95 percent of these areas were destroyed. Oystermen’s boats also were damaged or destroyed, leaving the fishermen without a livelihood.

After Katrina, DMR enlisted oystermen who were out of work to help map the damage to the reefs. When the damage was assessed, the oystermen were hired to move 72,000 sacks of oysters from Biloxi Bay to other areas so that they could rebuild the reefs.

“We’ve tried to help them through the storm by them helping us,” said Gordon. The partnership allowed the oystermen a firsthand look at why DMR regulates oystering like it does.

Several people said even though Mississippi has the most stringent regulations, they think the best oysters come from state waters and the regulations are part of what makes them so good.

Gordon said it’s important to involve the oystermen. When he took over the program in 1997, there was little communication between DMR and the oystermen. Now, oystermen can see that DMR is trying to strike a balance between caring for the oystermen and oysters and public health concerns.

Once a week, DMR researchers collect oyster samples and check reef conditions. On Friday, Gordon, Steve Breland, Danny Ross and Bradley Randall went on a reef check.

When they got out, several tongers were pulling up oysters in the center of the reef. There are certain areas designated for tonging and others for dredging. The DRM boat dredges in all areas so they can collect their samples. They are looking at the size of oysters, the number of dead oysters and the cluster sizes.

Gordon believes, based on his research, that next year is going to be good. Most of the oysters they dredge will meet the 3-inch size requirement next year. There are several empty shells, but even those serve the purpose of providing a clean surface that young oysters, known as spat, can grow on.

Next, DMR will re-enlist oystermen to plant beds for new oysters. Clutch materials, such as concrete, limestone and oyster shells, will be added to reefs so young oysters have the clean space they need to grow. This should lead to an increase in future oyster harvests.