Louisiana Oyster Task Force balks at opening public oyster beds


Members of Louisiana’s Oyster Task Force still aren’t ready to open more public oyster grounds to harvest, despite depleted supplies that followed the BP oil spill.

The Task Force on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly against a motion by oyster dealer Al Sunseri to recommend that the state open more public grounds east of the Mississippi River. The motion followed a state Wildlife and Fisheries report that recent surveys found few young “spat” oysters in the area in question.

Fear of damaging spat was a main reason why the task force supported the state’s decision late last year to keep the public grounds east of the Mississippi closed indefinitely.

The lack of spat in the area in question took away one argument for keeping the area closed. Still, opposition on the task force, which includes harvesters and others involved in the state oyster industry, was strong.

Oyster harvester Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, said sentiment among harvesters is against opening the public grounds, not only out of fear of damaging any spat that state surveys might not account for, but also possibly damaging the old shells the spat attach themselves to.

“There’s not enough oysters out there to justify going out there,” Encalade added.

Sunseri, whose P&J Oyster Co. has all but shut down because of the spill, and Mike Voisin, head of a family-owned oyster processing company in Terrebonne Parish, both pushed to open the public areas.

Voisin, who pushed unsuccessfully to open the area last year, said the state’s oyster harvesters and dealers are in danger of losing market share to oysters from other parts of the nation and even other countries. “Korean oysters. They’re out there,” he said.

But Sunseri’s motion failed on a voice vote. Task force members, however, did agree to work jointly with the state to do a more thorough survey of the area to better determine the availability of marketable oysters and spat in the area.

Supplies of Louisiana oysters have been down since the Deepwater Horizon accident in April that killed 11 offshore oil workers and sent millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. Precautionary closures of oyster areas hurt supplies at first. Then the diversion of fresh inland waters into the salty oyster areas killed much of the crop.

Most of the state’s oysters come from privately leased waters that operate year round but Voisin said the public waters that are opened seasonally — usually from late fall into the spring — are also a significant source.

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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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