Aw, Shucks: Oyster Industry Braces For Flood Water
Photo courtesy Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Mike Voisin hears the eerie music from “Jaws.” He knows the shark is circling and is about to bite.
Fresh water diversions to relieve Mississippi River flooding are threatening the already beleaguered Louisiana oyster industry.
“I haven’t seen any mortality yet, but in the next week or two, we expect to,” said Voisin, CEO of Motivatit Seafoods Inc, in Houma, La. “A freshwater oyster kill, it’s not unusual. What’s unusual is the enormity of it, the size of it. It’s coming down slow, it’s kind of scary.”
When the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway on May 14, it began to send 396 million cubic feet of water per hour down the Atchafalaya River basin. It appears to have prevented catastrophic flooding in the capital city of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but more than 2,500 people have been evacuated and thousands more will be affected.
Many of the state’s 400,000 farmed acres that produce 250 million pounds of oysters a year will be inundated with fresh water, which kills the bivalve mollusks so many enjoy on the half shell with a dash of hot sauce.
“It’s going to be very impactful,” said Voisin, a seventh generation oysterman in the business for 40 years.
He added there is some hope as the water has not traveled as quickly as the Corps anticipated, allowing his company and others to attempt to harvest as many close-to-mature oysters as they can.
“We moved boats into the area and are harvesting aggressively to try to get as much as we can,” he said. “They’re a little small, but we’re still moving them.”
Voisin believes drought conditions in the region are contributing to the slow movement of the water, but it remains a sword hanging over their heads.
“Literally, we’ve been in a drought, so all this water coming down is actually coming slow,” he said. “I think it’s going in the marsh and the ground is just sucking it up. It’s a start. But there’s so much of it coming.”
Diversions to keep out Deepwater Horizon oil out of the marsh cut in half last year’s harvest, and Voisin anticipates it to be cut in half again.
“Given the rise in the river, and that the oysters have gone through their reproductive cycle and are weak, we might be able to get about 25 or our normal production,” he said. “Oysters need 5 to 15 parts per thousand of salt. In lower salinity, they just can’t survive. And that stuff coming down the river is not 5 parts per thousand. It’s zero.”
There are 750 million oysters produced each year in Louisiana, and 70 to 80 percent come from farms. Farmers lease barren water bottom from the state and prepare it with cultch, broken shells and other material where the larvae can attach and grow. Oysters reproduce twice a year and grow in the water column until they form a shell and sink to the bottom.
“It’s expensive to prepare a bottom,” Voison said, “Millions of dollars. And when they die off, we have to turn all the shells over and rake them, cultivate them for the next reproductive cycle.”
Voisin said depending on the area it takes several years for oysters to grow into a harvestable product.
“They’ll come back, but in three to four years. Who can be in business if you have a small farm?” he said. “Because of having to rebuild and rehabilitate in the last five, six years, I think we’ll see less small farmers.
“We just bought another farm that had been in a family for years and years. We will see a dwindling of some of the smaller farmers. It’s sad.”
Voisin pointed out the industry suffered hits in 2005 after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, then Gustav and Ike in 2008 and the BP spill last year. The flow from the Morganza Spillway will flood prime oyster farmland, setting the industry back at least another three years.
“Opening the Morganza is a huge thing. It’s not something they want to do,” said Voisin, noting it had only been opened once before in 1973. “I’m an optimist, but is this the straw that breaks some camels’ backs?”