NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Fresh water from Midwestern floods has killed oysters along the coasts of three states and cost Mississippi half of its blue crabs.
Water that came through a Louisiana spillway killed 95 per cent of the oysters in Mississippi’s share of the Mississippi Sound and fed toxic algae blooms that closed the state’s beaches, said Joe Spraggins, executive director of the state Department of Marine Resources. Seafood and tourism businesses, from bait shops and seafood processors to restaurants and hotels, have lost USD120 million to USD150 million, he said on Friday.
The governors of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama asked months ago for United States (US) Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to declare a fisheries disaster, a designation needed to secure federal grants for those whose livelihoods were affected in the Gulf region’s vital seafood industry.
Alabama cancelled its oyster season.
It will be months before all the figures are in and the analysis completed to tell which Louisiana fisheries qualify, said Assistant Secretary for fisheries Patrick Banks at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Floodwaters from the Midwest and rains elsewhere poured down the Mississippi and into the Atchafalaya River. They wound up in the Gulf of Mexico — both through the rivers and via the huge, normally brackish lake that borders New Orleans, because a major spillway was opened twice for a total of more than four months to protect New Orleans’ levees.
A full 12 months’ data is needed to compare losses to averages for the previous five years, with a 35 per cent loss qualifying a fishery as a disaster.
“We’re analysing every fishery, every portion of the state, every species… It’s going to take some time to put all that information together,” Banks said recently.
He said losses appear to have begun in November but analysts may find that the earliest effects didn’t greatly damage catches until December or January, adding another month or two to the process.
Oysters continue among the worst-hit fisheries, with brown shrimp, crab and finfish catches also down from a year ago, department figures indicate.
“You would always expect oysters to take the hardest hit just because they can’t move out of harm’s way,” Banks said.
The mollusks can tolerate a wide range of salinity, but a long spell of fresh water coupled with high temperatures can be lethal.
Spraggins said oysters need at least five years to recover. “If you put a juvenile oyster in the water today it takes two years for the oyster to get to market size. They start spawning after about a year, so you lose two to three seasons of spawning per oyster. It multiplies from that point,” he said.
Fresh water killed anywhere from three-quarters to all the oysters on several of Louisiana’s public reefs, according to a state report. It said statewide oyster landings were down 28 per cent on private reefs and 91 per cent on public reefs from March through May.
Louisiana produced 13.3 million pounds of oysters in 2017 — 54 per cent of the nation’s harvest, while Mississippi contributed about two and Alabama about one per cent of the total, according to federal figures. The take from Louisiana’s public reefs has made up less than 10 per cent of Louisiana’s total for the last decade or so, Banks said.