The truth about the vanishing Gulf oyster: It’s worse than you think


Over the last year or so, an increasing number of articles have appeared — in widely read publications like Newsweek or the Guardian — bemoaning the sorry environmental state of the Gulf, more than four years after the Deepwater Horizon spill. To me, there’s no more important issue than this — it’s the very reason that I started this blog not long after the spill, so that people would know the true state of affairs along the Gulf Coast. I’ve re-posted many of these articles here, so you’re probably familiar with most of the issues: Tar balls coming ashore on sandy beaches, dead or disappearing dolphins and sea turtles, oil-poisoned migratory birds and so on. Typically these stories also contain a quote from one of Louisiana’s veteran oystermen, complaining about a sharp drop-off in his harvest.

It’s a complicated issue, to be sure. Those of us who’ve grown up in the region and were raised with a love for a platter of meaty, raw Gulf oysters know very well that there will always be fluctuations from year-to-year, and that these ups and downs are something that pre-dates the BP oil spill. Even now, some time after Deepwater Horizon, experts agree there are several factors that can affect the oyster harvest, including diversion of fresh water from inland waterways that disturbs the chemistry of aquatic life on the Gulf. This week, however, a global outfit called the Bellona Foundation, which studies climate issues and other environmental challenges, issued the most in-depth report to date in the oyster crisis in the Gulf.

The results are astounding. Their reporting — using rock-solid statistics — shows that oyster catches have dropped by at least two-thirds in most locations that could have been affected by the oil spill, and in some case closer to 90 percent or more. In addition, a close read of the report leaves little doubt that the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is a primary factor, and almost certainly the largest, in causing that devastation.

Here’s an excerpt from Bellona’s deeply reported piece:

It’s clear from Bellona’s interviews with scientists, fishermen, seafood distributors, and Gulf state Marine resource officials that BP’s stoic rebuttal that the abysmal oyster harvest is not related to its disaster must be taken with the grains of salt the company is insisting were washed out of the oyster beds.

By this year, the oyster harvest Gulf-wide is hovering around one quarter to one third of what it was prior to the BP spill, Chris Nelson, owner of Bon Secour Fisheries, Inc – which buys oysters from all five Gulf states – told Bellona in a telephone interview.

“There’s just nothing out there,” he said. “We’ve had barren spells before, especially in the 80s and 90s but they’re always cyclical – this is like there’s something chronic out there in the water that’s just preventing things in areas that were once abundant from taking.”

He said that fresh water inundations tend only to impact oyster harvests for a season, sometimes less, and that fresh water alone couldn’t account for the ongoing downward spiral “which is probably the longest we’ve ever seen.”

What the dreadful harvests mean in numbers are that Louisiana’s public reefs produced about 3 million to 7 million pounds of oyster meat a year prior to BP’s catastrophe, according to figures reported by AP.

Today, the Bellona article notes, the annual haul has yet to climb even above 1 million pounds, which is only one-third as much. The article talks to key players in the oyster business who’ve pretty much gotten out of it altogether, as well as others who are barely getting by on these slim pickings. The men who once worked these beds have little doubt that in 2010 they saw the effects of both the oil and — equally or possibly even more important — the toxic dispersant Corexit that was widely dumped the Gulf.

“In my case, BP took away and Mother Nature can’t pay their debt – what killed my oysters was oil and Corexit, not fresh water,” George Barisch, president of the United Commercial Fishermans’ Association, told the foundation. The fact that crude oil and the toxic dispersant had such a devastating impact on the Gulf’s sensitive oyster beds is not surprising, perhaps — but it is a story that needs to be told and shared. It’s quite a contrast with the picture of environmental recovery that BP is trying to paint, not to mention its recent efforts to run away from its financial promises and obligations for restoring the Gulf. The reality of the oyster crisis is even worse than we thought.

Please check out the entire in-depth report from the Barona Foundation:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2014 – All Rights Reserved


  • Thanks for sharing this article. Question: are there any programs or proposals to combine storm-surge levees and expanded oyster “farms?” Seems a perfect match: using fresh and saltwater to manage salinity behind open-ended levees. Open-end would allow traditional boats to work the reefs and allow sports fishermen to enjoy the fishing. Sports would support better fishing. By the way, have your read “The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell?” History of the decline of the New York City oyster industry. (I didn’t know it had existed.)

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