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Louisiana oyster harvesters call for post-Ida aid to clean up leased harvesting grounds

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Travis Lux / WWNO
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In a photo taken summer 2019, oyster harvester and LOTF member Mitch Jurisich picks up two dead oysters from a pile of freshly harvested oysters in Empire, Louisiana. Hurricane Ida is just the most recent disaster for an industry hit hard by extreme weather, oil spills and water quality changes in recent years.

The Louisiana Oyster Task Force hopes to revive a state-run program created after Hurricane Katrina that would help oyster harvesters rehabilitate their fishing grounds and save the state from poor harvests in the next few years.

The proposal to bring back the Private Oyster Lease Rehabilitation program (POLR) is in response to Hurricane Ida’s destruction of huge swathes of oyster habitats along the coast. In an interview with WWLTV, Louisiana Oyster Task Force (LOTF) member Mitch Jurisich estimated that about 40% of Plaquemines Parish’s oyster crop was lost to the storm.

“But when you get further west — Lafourche, Jefferson, Terrebonne Parish — they really took the brunt of it and I’m sure what they’re finding that way is a lot of devastation,” Jurisich told Channel 4.

Devastation of oyster crops is bad news for more than just oyster harvesters and diners. According to an October 2020 study by LSU researchers, Louisiana oysters bring the state $84 million annually and account for about a third of all oysters caught in the U.S.

Carolina Bourque, LDWF’s oyster program manager, said hurricanes like Ida destroy oyster reefs by pushing marsh sediment, grass and debris on top of the reefs, “smothering them over time.”

She noted that cleaning up the reefs would help, but it has to be done carefully. If cleaning crews try to remove sediment from reefs during a weak tide, or with water moving in the wrong direction, then mud and debris could end up settling right back on top of the reefs.

If funded, POLR would reimburse leaseholders of oyster fishing grounds for eligible costs of rehabilitating oyster habitats on their state-owned leases. These costs include laying down material for oyster larvae to latch onto during early growth, called cultch or rock.

Cultch materials include crushed minerals and rocks like concrete, limestone, porcelain and recycled construction material, but recycled oyster shells work best. Placing these materials has the added benefit of strengthening Louisiana’s coast against severe tropical weather activity.

Cultch materials are expensive to purchase and transport. Bourque said the cost of purchasing, transporting and laying down limestone on water bottoms is around $100 per cubic yard of material.

Despite the cost, Bourque said at a Wednesday morning Public-Private Oyster Seed Grounds Committee meeting that dispersing cultch on water bottoms is the best way to rehabilitate oyster reefs.

Jurisich disagreed, saying that if harvesters put concrete or limestone on top sofilt and marsh debris, the cultch would settle into the mud where oyster larvae wouldn’t catch onto it. He acknowledged that including reef cleaning in the POLR program would be expensive, and the board discussed leaving that job to harvesters while POLR reimburses them for cultch exclusively.

In a post-meeting interview, Bourque cautioned that while nothing about POLR is settled yet, reimbursing harvesters for only the cost of cultch seems like the direction LOTF wants to take.

When POLR was first created after Hurricane Katrina, the federal government footed the bill. There’s no guarantee that will happen this time because the federal government hasn’t acknowledged the coast as a fisheries disaster area like it did after past major hurricanes. U.S. Rep. Garrett Graves requested a fishery disaster declaration for Louisiana last month, but the federal Department of Commerce has not yet acted on the request.

Jurisich said at the meeting that LOTF and other seafood industry organizations want Gov. John Bel Edwards to declare a state fisheries disaster to begin the process by bringing federal attention to the situation on the coast.

Without a secured source of funding though, several committee members agreed it was best to move ahead with rehabilitation efforts and save their receipts for possible reimbursement without counting on the program. LOTF members Brad Robin and John Tesvich acknowledged that most oyster harvesters couldn’t afford such expensive rehabilitation efforts.

Tesvich pointed out that most harvesters would have to prioritize replacing houses, boats and trucks before they could even begin paying for rehabilitation efforts. He proposed that the state should start keeping a stock of oyster cultch to distribute to smaller harvesters after disasters like Ida.

Robin agreed.

“There’s maybe 20 in our group that can afford to do what we're doing,” he said, and that about 100 other harvesters depend on their purchase and dispersal of cultch to stay in business. “We’ve got to get these guys up and running because it takes the whole pie to make this industry work.”

In an interview, Bourque said that LDWF wants to ensure that any money allocated to POLR is used as efficiently as possible. LOTF members recalled that a large portion of the money allocated to the program after Katrina was spent on administrative costs, like monitoring harvesters as they cleaned up reefs to ensure the money was being spent in the way harvesters claimed.

Tesvich said program money would be spent more efficiently by simply reimbursing harvesters for cultch.

Bourque hopes some funds will be used to rehabilitate public oyster harvesting grounds too. “Those areas are really in bad shape,” she said.

Toward the end of the meeting, while considering the best methods to ask the state and federal government for funds, Jurisich discussed the positive effects oyster farming has for the Gulf.

“When it comes to coastal restoration,” he said, “nobody competes with oyster farmers that are putting rock out everyday in that war. That's the honest to God truth, out of our pocket … we're coastal advocates better than CPRA or any other agency they got out there because all they want is the glory. All we want to do is do what we've done for generations, and that’s produce the highest-quality oyster in the world.”