Sustainability of One of Our Greatest Natural Resources
The sustainability of Louisiana oysters is essential to the preservation of our estuaries and the economic vitality of our state.
Louisiana has long held the title of being the nation’s #1 supplier of oysters, historically producing nearly 65% of all oysters commercially harvested in the United States. Oysters play a major role in marine and coastal environments but face many threats from hurricanes to oil spills to toxins and changing water conditions. Oyster farmers spend millions of dollars, out-of-pocket, building oyster bottoms to safeguard oyster habitats.
Despite its challenges, there are two fundamental principles that drive this industry:
1. Coastal restoration
2. Safeguarding the stability of this prolific natural resource for another 150+ years
Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion
Plaquemines Parish is home to the largest commercial fishing fleet in the lower 48 states and accounts for 70% of Louisiana’s total commercial landings including shrimp, oyster, crab, and finfish, however, that is being threatened by the development of the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion (MBSD), a large-scale diversion structure on the west bank of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish.
The MBSD represents the single greatest threat to Louisiana’s fisheries. In operation, it will divert up to 75,000 cfs (cubic ft. per second) of nutrient-rich freshwater from the Mississippi River into the naturally brackish Barataria estuary. Historically productive oyster reefs will be swamped with upriver sediment, wiping out the marine life habitat that currently exists and has existed for centuries.
And though the cost of the MBSD continues to balloon – $275 million in 2012 and $999 million in 2017 – at $2 billion dollars, today the MBSD is expected to create less land over 50 years (21 square miles) than Louisiana is estimated to lose in any single year.
While Louisiana’s oyster industry remains a vocal advocate for coastal restoration, we strongly oppose using large-scale diversions to rebuild our coast at the expense of our fisheries, our industry’s jobs, and our coastal heritage and way of life. Louisiana can rebuild and protect its coast without sacrificing the diversity of its estuaries or destroying its abundant marine life and fisheries. We need to continue to explore more viable and less invasive options such as dredging which has been proven to reduce land loss and rebuild habitat that protects our coast and coastal residents.
Mardi Gras Pass, located in the Bohemia Spillway about 35 miles southeast of New Orleans, occurred when the Mississippi River breached its eastern bank and created a new channel to the Gulf of Mexico on Mardi Gras Day, February 21, 2012.
Mardi Gras Pass is arguably the key contributor to the shortage of oysters in Louisiana due to the influx of freshwater in the estuary. Before the opening of Mardi Gras Pass, 98% of harvested oysters came from public reefs, and Breton Sound was responsible for 80% of oysters produced in Louisiana in any given year. Today, nearly 500,000 acres of public and private oyster growing areas sit dormant in Breton Sound, and 99% of oyster production comes from private leases.
For years, Louisiana oyster harvesters have fought for the closing of Mardi Gras Pass. In 2017 the Louisiana Oyster Task Force authorized $200,000 from the Oyster Development Fund to fund an engineering study to determine how the crevasse could be closed.
Plaquemines Parish filed a coastal-use permit with the state calling for a complete closure of the pass. The closure of Mardi Gras Pass would require approval from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In 2019, for more than 120 days, freshwater was diverted through the Bonnet Carré Spillway to relieve pressure on the levees along the Mississippi River. The influx of river water killed millions of pounds of oysters and disrupted the balance required for species like shrimp, crabs, or menhaden to thrive. According to a fisheries disaster economic impact analysis conducted by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the Louisiana fishing industry suffered an estimated $258 million in losses due to the historic flooding event.
Louisiana oyster farmers are survivors. Through the years, they’ve learned how to adapt and protect their crop against Mothe Nature. Hurricanes consistently present challenges for the oyster farming community. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and more recently Zeta and Ida left lasting impacts on Louisiana oyster production. While oyster reefs act as buffers, deflecting wave energy away from the shore leaves the reefs vulnerable and susceptible to damage. Extremely strong storms can push sediment and debris smothering or moving these reefs.