BILOXI -- The state Department of Marine Resources on Wednesday unveiled a twofold plan that would both put oyster harvesters back to work and save an oyster reef from possible damage.
The auditorium at the DMR building on Bayview Avenue in Biloxi was standing-room only Wednesday morning. Oystermen, who were thrown out of work Dec. 11 when the red tide algae bloom closed the oyster beds, anxiously awaited the announcement.
The plan, DMR Executive Director Jamie Miller said, is to use area commercial fishermen as state employees to move oysters from St. Joe reef to reefs in Biloxi Bay and Pass Christian. Miller said the oysters need to be moved before fresh water from the recently opened Bonnet Carre Spillway moves into the St. Joe reef.
"This is an emergency oyster-recovery program," he said. "As a result of the opening of Bonnet Carre Spillway on Jan. 10, the DMR will begin to relay oysters from the westernmost, vulnerable areas of the Mississippi Sound. Due to the red tide, the DMR would like to employ commercial fishermen as contractors to complete the recovery project.
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Miller said the relocation is Phase 1 of a larger initiative.
"This is an emergency program and there will be more information to come," he said. "The Bonnet Carre has been released and is coming our way and we need to do something quickly. We need to get as many oysters out of the western part of the Sound as possible."
Moving the oysters
DMR Chief Scientific Officer Kelly Lucas said the relocation process is similar to oyster harvesting.
"In a relocation, you have oyster dredgers and tongers, the same as in harvesting," she said. "What we are looking for is live oysters. We're not too concerned about the size of the oysters."
Lucas said the live oysters are stacked and transported to a reef in safer waters, where they are released.
"Some of the oystermen are concerned about traveling as far as Biloxi, so we are looking at having them take and unloading them on a barge that would then take them to Biloxi."
She said moving the mollusks is a relatively safe procedure.
"There is a chance for some mortality in it just because the oysters may already be under some stress, but (their) chance of survival is much greater," she said.
Qualifying for the program
The oyster-relocation program will be funded by using disaster money received in 2014 as a result of damage from the 2011 opening of the Bonnet Carre, which destroyed 85 percent of state reefs.
Qualifications for the program are fairly simple.
One must have a valid state driver's license as well as a commercial oyster license for 2011-12 and any year between 2007 and 2010.
But a state requirement for contract workers was a source of contention for some of the oystermen who were not among the 100 or so that began the program's paperwork process Wednesday morning.
"There's a code that requires a contractor of the state to have a million dollars in liability insurance," Miller said. "It seems to be the No. 1 hurdle for participating in the program is this contract requirement."
According to Bowles and Associates of New Orleans, an agency that specializes in maritime commercial insurance, the liability-insurance premium on an oyster boat is about $7,750 a year.
Alicia Miller, an oysterman's daughter, said her father and the other fishermen could not afford the cost of insurance.
"How do you expect these fishermen to pay for liability insurance for them and their crew, which is going to be about $3,000 a month?" she said. "I think you should take the umbrella grant money and buy insurance for all of these fishermen."
Jamie Miller said the DMR is still developing the plan but it needs to act quickly because of the threat to the St. Joe Reef.