PASS CHRISTIAN — Officials from the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources took oyster fishermen out on the reefs off the Pass Christian Harbor on Wednesday to give them a preview of what to expect from the upcoming oyster season.
Catches resulting in an abundance of empty oyster shells led some fishermen to doubt the viability of the season, which typically begins in September or October.
“We’ve lost this season,” oyster dredger Loe Nguyen said.
Nguyen said he’s also a shrimper, but that shrimping season hasn’t been good, either, since the oil spill.
He said he had a negative feeling about the upcoming oyster season when DMR officials dredged for oysters and pulled up catches with about 80 to 90 percent of the oysters dead.
“It’s bad news for the oyster fishermen,” Nguyen said.
Scott Gordon, director of the DMR shellfish bureau, said there have been more oyster mortalities this year, but he doesn’t know whether it can be attributed to the BP oil spill.
“We don’t have any evidence that oil has contributed to these mortalities,” he said.
Still, the abundance of hollowed shells from Wednesday’s dredge concerned him.
“I’m not as encouraged about this season as I’d like to be,” Gordon said.
Gordon said DMR has been collecting samples of seafood to test for hydrocarbons, and results have all been below levels of concern.
The weather this summer may be a cause of the oyster deaths, he said.
“We’ve had an unseasonably hot summer,” Gordon said.
He said high temperatures lead to lower levels of dissolved oxygen in the water, which could cause oysters and other marine animals to die.
Gordon said he would have expected to see oyster mortalities during a summer like this, even without the oil spill. But some fishermen suspect the oil is a cause for the amount of empty oyster shells dredged up on the DMR trip.
Oyster dredger Minh Tran said it was the first time he’s seen a season like this. He’s been in the oyster business for 10 years.
Tran joked he’d be heading to the WIN Job Center or filing for unemployment. He said he has filed a claim with BP to make up for his lost income.
“We all have,” he said of his fellow fishing community.
When asked if the money he has received has been enough, he simply shook his head. Tran said he also completed five applications for the Vessels of Opportunity program, but BP used only one of his boats, for 14 days.
Seafood wholesaler Darlene Kimball of Kimball’s Seafood said she has filed a claim with BP twice and has yet to see any payment to make up for her lost income. It’s become frustrating almost to the point of giving up, she said.
“Of course, I can’t afford to give up,” Kimball said.
The business she runs has been passed down in her family for four generations.
“After Katrina it was bad, but that was because of a hurricane,” she said. Kimball said she’s also had trouble selling the few shrimp that have come in this shrimping season, because consumers are leery of Gulf seafood.
“This is very concerning for me because this is my livelihood,” she said.
Gordon said the public’s reluctance about Gulf seafood has been a challenge for those who make their living on the water, but he has no doubts of quality of safety of Mississippi seafood.
During Wednesday’s oyster dredge, Gordon pointed out evidence the oysters had been feeding, and the presence of young oysters that could reach legal size by next season.
He said the dredging DMR conducted Wednesday is only a small sample of the thousands of acres of oyster reefs in Mississippi, so it’s hard to write off the season for sure.
DMR will go out farther in the Sound today to take more samples from the reefs.