Louisiana oyster industry struggles to cope with oil spill, coastal restoration efforts


After five years and four hurricanes, 2010 had all the markings of a banner year for Pete Vujnovich and his array of oyster leases west of the Mississippi River.

But the months-long assault of oil in Barataria Bay – and more importantly the state’s decision to unleash fresh water from the river to beat back oil – has wiped out more than three-quarters of his crop, leaving the next five years an open question.

“Where do I start reinvesting? Where do I start redeveloping?” Vujnovich said last week, after returning to Port Sulphur from his first trip to haul oysters since May 22. “Is it going to be clear in 10 years? Is it going to be clear in two years?”

The Deepwater Horizon oil disaster has triggered endless amounts of soul-searching across the Gulf Coast, but it’s difficult to find impacts so profound as those felt by the Louisiana oyster industry. The freshwater diversions opened along the river by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration were an emergency measure meant to address the encroaching oil, but the effects on the oyster industry have rekindled an important debate about the trade-offs and sacrifices entailed in coastal restoration.

Coastal restoration master plan

River diversions such as the ones opened this spring and summer are a cornerstone of the state’s coastal restoration master plan. More and bigger diversions of fresh water through engineered gaps in Mississippi River levees are seen as a crucial component to beating back salt water from the Gulf of Mexico that has eroded marshes and led to monumental land loss.

The goal is to mimic the natural environment from centuries before, when an unbridled river without levees naturally spilled fresh water and mud into the marshes during flood stages. The interaction of fresh and salt water created diverse habitats ranging from cypress swamp to saltwater marsh grass, and created one of the most productive nurseries for seafood in the world – oysters included.

But levees built for flood protection along the river during the past century have disconnected the land-building river from the marshes it used to feed, allowing the Gulf to creep farther inland. During that shift, the oyster industry evolved into what it is today: more than 3,000 square miles of private oyster leases and public oyster grounds scattered across the marshes of the state.

Many of today’s leases are in areas that would not have been historically ideal for oyster production, which requires a delicate balance of fresh and saltwater influence. As the system has gradually become saltier farther inland, oyster production has taken root.

Oyster beds need balance

Generations of lease holders and oyster fishers have invested countless hours and dollars into cultivating oyster beds – basically hard formations of rocks and shells built up over time – that are tied to specific geographical locations. So naturally there has been widespread concern in the oyster industry when there are discussions of introducing large amounts of fresh water into the estuaries.

“The problem here is that there is an industry that has built up around certain conditions,” said Thomas Soniat, a professor who has extensively studied oysters in the department of biological sciences at the University of New Orleans. “The real concern here is that with freshwater diversions, the proper salinities for growing oysters will be pushed to an area away from where there’s adequate hard bottom, and also it’ll be pushed away from where people have developed those leases and built up a hard bottom.”

The debate reached fever pitch a decade ago east of the Mississippi River, when oyster farmers sued the state for damage to oyster leases as a result of the Caernarvon freshwater diversion. One of the suits in Plaquemines Parish resulted in an award of more than $1 billion in damages to oyster lease holders, before it was overturned by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

After the court episode, which resulted in a judgment that left the state largely immune to future damage suits for coastal restoration projects, the oyster industry has been in limbo.

Moratorium on leases

A moratorium on new oyster leases has been in place since 2002, around the time of the court case. The state Legislature created a panel in 2008 tasked with studying ways to lift the moratorium, which delivered a report to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries earlier this year.

The report recommended several procedural changes to the lease system, including liability exemptions for existing oil and gas activity on new oyster leases and a recommendation to re-evaluate ownership of state water bottoms. Oyster leases are actually owned by the state, but leased out for two dollars per acre per year.

But many in the oyster industry were critical of the way the committee was designed, giving representatives of the oil and gas industry and coastal landowners more seats than those in the oyster industry.

In the wake of the oil spill, however, many in the industry and outside observers see a chance to revisit the tough questions surrounding coastal restoration and the future of the oyster industry – and possibly get some answers.

Future of the industry debated

Last month Garret Graves, Jindal’s coastal adviser, announced the creation of the Governor’s Oyster Advisory Committee, a 15-member panel tasked with making decisions about the future of the industry and the use of BP funds and other money that could aid the fishery.

Some of the more pressing questions facing the committee deal with whether to reopen leasing in certain areas, and where to do it. Graves said the intention is to map out salinity zones to guide the industry, based on the locations of potential diversion sites that may be constructed in the future.

“We want to be able to start sketching out areas where at a minimum we should not reinvest, because of contaminated sediments from oil, or what the salinity levels look like, so that way you can at least start ruling areas out and start guiding people,” Graves said.

He added that the long-term risks of coastal land loss pose the same questions about the viability of the oyster industry as any concerns about increased fresh water in the estuaries.

“I don’t look at this like an either-or, where you have winners or losers,” Graves said. “It’s pretty clear that on the current path, considering that 2,300 square miles has been lost, that without fundamental change and some major investments in our coastal area … Yes, the oyster industry is in jeopardy, but not because of anything the state did or didn’t do. It’s in jeopardy because of the incredible changes happening to our coast.

“It’s not like the status quo truly means that everything stays the same.”

In principle, everyone in the oyster industry agrees.

A tale of two camps

It’s in the details where things start to break down. Although there are many different tools and approaches for coastal restoration, the major proposals break down into two fundamental camps: diversions of the river to funnel fresh water and sediment into the marshes, and large-scale dredging and piping of sediment.

Some combination of the two is needed, most coastal scientists agree, but many in the oyster industry believe that major diversions of the river will do little to build land quickly. Most of them push for smaller diversions of the river that are carefully monitored and released at strategic times.

“As far as freshwater diversions as a tool to create land, that’s not the purpose in my eyes,” said Vujnovich, the Port Sulphur oyster farmer who serves on the governor’s advisory committee. “I don’t see that working. The river doesn’t carry that much sediment; it just doesn’t have the land-building capability anymore.”

Plus he brought up the question of drastically changing brackish and saltwater marsh into a fresher system, and trying to reestablish oyster grounds farther away from the river.

“My basic theory is that it took 50 to 80 years for the erosion and increased salinities to move these resources farther north,” Vujnovich said. “You can’t reverse it back overnight.”

Although there has been recent strife between the oyster industry and proponents of freshwater diversions, it was actually the oyster industry early last century that first proposed the idea of freshwater diversions. Studies from the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries dating back to the 1920s suggested opening up the river to freshen up oyster beds that were becoming too salty.

Fresh water kills oysters, but water that is too salty leaves them open to predators – most notably a snail called the oyster drill that can get through shells.

“The coastal restoration guys painted the oyster industry as being against coastal restoration, which we never were,” said John Tesvich, another Port Sulphur oyster farmer who chairs the Louisiana Oyster Task Force. “We are for diversions. We were for it when nobody else was for it. We want to be able to control salinity, because that’s what enhances the fisheries. But these ideas that fresh water will just build land … Well, not in our lifetime. Not in time to do much good. So why keep going that way?”

The character of the diversions is also different from the more natural flood events that would have taken place before levees were built along the river. Diversions are much more of a concentrated point source for fresh water, as opposed to a gradual overflow of river water that would have taken place periodically over hundreds of square miles of marsh.

The state’s coastal restoration master plan, which is undergoing an 18-month revision, is also accounting for the anticipated changes for the oyster industry. Some of the recommendations will likely include abandonment of certain oyster grounds that will be too fresh for harvesting.

Despite the natural suspicion the oyster industry has about how fresh water affects the future, some say that there is a middle way. Up until now, much of the indecision about restructuring the oyster industry was because of a severe lack of funding.

“I think things have gotten to a level of action that we’ve not seen before because we’re starting to see money pumped into the state, from one source or another,” said Earl Melancon Jr., a professor of biological sciences at Nicholls State University who is assisting the state with the coastal restoration master plan revisions. “What I am glad to see is that finally things have moved to the point where there’s the reality that some of this stuff is going to happen. … I am seeing now, finally, more and more discussion in terms of ‘Just how are we going to change the estuaries?’ Now we’re talking about ‘Is there a way to have your cake and eat it too?’ I’m of the opinion that if you’re willing to manage things properly, you can.”

See photos here: http://www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/index.ssf/2010/10/louisiana_oyster_industry_stru.html

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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