This week the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources released the final report of the Governor’s Oyster Council on Restoration and Resiliency. Both MDMR Director Jamie Miller and Governor Phil Bryant have said that 2015 is the “year of the oyster” in Mississippi. It is the year to start helping oysters recover. Oyster dock landings have plummeted from half a million sacks to 26,000 sacks in a decade, after the resource sustained two successive setbacks: Katrina and the BP oil spill. Council chairman Dave Dennis, Director Miller and his MDMR staff released the report on time in the form of recommendations for the industry and the Mississippi Legislature. They fell into three broad categories: Oysters in the Environment, Oysters in the Economy, and Oyster Aquaculture and Emerging Technologies. The Mississippi Legislature will need some education about oysters and the industry they support so some of the report’s recommendations can get funded and implemented.
Oysters grow and reproduce in coastal estuaries and bays that have moderate salinities, but the impacted coastal environment poses many challenges. Many environmental factors in our impacted coastal waters seem to conspire against the basic needs of oysters. For instance, the erosion of the barrier islands over time, including the breach of Ship Island into two halves lets more high-salinity water into the Mississippi Sound. The way hurricanes and storms have transformed buffering marshes to open water in southeast Louisiana and western Mississippi also raises salinities. Marsh restoration projects and the refilling of the “Camille Cut” on Ship Island are things that should help make salinities lower and, in turn, help oyster reefs.
Two of the Oyster Council subcommittee reports specifically mentioned the need for adequate fresh water flowing to the coast: normal seasonal fresh water inputs from rivers, like the Pearl and Pascagoula that feed Mississippi’s coastal waters. The Oysters in the Environment Committee called for continued focus on Barrier Island and coastal marsh restoration and educating decision makers on impacts of major freshwater depleting projects (inland dams). The Oysters in the Economy Committee recommended the identification of threats and restoration projects currently planned that may affect salinity, such as Ship Island restoration and flood control proposals (dams and lakes) for the Pearl River.
Singling out which decision makers need education on these issues isn’t hard. Governor Bryant needs to take his own Oyster Council’s Report to heart. He needs to understand that his funding and support of the One Lake project in Jackson on the Pearl River is in conflict with his Oyster Council’s recommendations about water quantity. Flood control doesn’t have to involve damming and dredging the river. Our Congressional delegation needs to understand that if Congress funds the building of another freshwater depleting project, like a new dam and lake in Jackson, there will be a price to pay downstream. All dams deplete rivers of fresh water through increased evaporation from a wide, shallow lake. The environmental cost can include hampering the recovery of the oyster sector of a very important seafood industry. Governor Bryant, in his upbeat foreword to the Oyster Council Report, compares abundant crops of soybeans to abundant crops of oysters. Oysters are more like canaries in a coal mine because their health, abundance and sustainability as the basis of a seafood industry are good indicators of the health of the coastal waters. Too much sewage runoff, high salinities, too much barrier island and marsh erosion, not enough fresh water… and oysters decline along with the whole coastal ecosystem. Oysters, in this context, are a bigger deal than soybeans. Yes, I agree with the Council’s report: the decision makers need education about oysters. This report is a great start.
Andrew Whitehurst is Water Program Director at Gulf Restoration Network and covers Mississippi water and wetland issues.