GULFPORT -- Harrison County residents on Monday took exception to plans by the Department of Marine Resources to lease out a section of Bay of St. Louis to oyster farming.
The Board of Supervisors first heard from DMR executive director Jamie Miller before residents voiced concerns at Monday's supervisors meeting.
The DMR has proposed leasing a section of the bay out to private oyster farmers in their effort to rehabilitate the Mississippi oyster industry.
It's part of Gov. Phil Bryant's initiative to restore oyster aquaculture, or farming. Last year he established the Governor's Oyster Restoration and Resiliency Council to develop recommendations to recovery the industry.
Miller said the Coast has been producing about 26,000 to 28,000 sacks of oysters since the BP oil spill, down from about 500,000 in 2003-04.
"That's about 5 percent of what it once was," he said.
Since meeting with Bryant, the DMR identified four possible Harrison County locations for oyster farming. The proposed site is a 24-acre rectangle next to the Bay St. Louis Bridge and the CSX Train Bridge, about 900 yards from shore.
As part of the permit process the DMR notified adjacent land owners. Monday land owners gave their thoughts about the project.
Jim Heurtin, president of the Henderson Point Pass Christian Isles Civic Association, told the board, "This is one of the most highly residential areas in coastal Mississippi.
"We've waited 10 years to see homes come back. Before Katrina we had approximately 500 homes. Now, we have 260. It's been a struggle. Many of those have been re-built within the last few years and in the last six months we've seen great growth. It's a highly residential and recreational area. Sailboats, fishing boats, I can't imagine seeing residents compete with commercial fisherman," he said.
Area real estate agent Avra O'Dwyer said the DMR lease could prevent future economic development in the area.
"If this goes through, it'll bring down appreciation that we're finally beginning to build. I know of a $4 million investment. I'll have to tell them about this. I doubt they'll still be interested," O'Dwyer said.
"We are on an economic boom. That's ad valorem taxes for you," she told the board.
Resident Dawn Adams echoed the dire predictions.
"This is a nail in the coffin for the Henderson Point and for the Pass Christian Isles community," Adams said about communities close to the site of the oyster farming. "We are just now beginning to come back, just now, from Katrina."
Miller responded by clarifying the DMR has been thorough in its investigation of possible farming locations, having even traveled to Chesapeake Bay in Virginia to see how their operations work. He added there are oyster farms and hatcheries in neighboring Louisiana and Alabama.
"This concept is not new. It's been embraced by the industry and the scientific community," he said.
Half Shell Oyster franchises co-founder Rob Heffner was one of the only residents to speak in favor of the oyster-farming site. He said his restaurant and others on the Coast spend millions of dollars a year purchasing oysters from neighboring states. He attributed disapproval of the project on the part of homeowners a "misunderstanding" of oyster farming.
"Mississippi has such a small market now for oysters," he said. "They are trying to make it easier for individual fishermen to sell them. I think there's a lot of misinformation about these farms and what they do. They clean the water, they filter it, they're friendly for game fishermen. They remove nitrogen ... there's nothing that isn't environmentally friendly."
District 3 Supervisor Martin Ladner said, "There's no doubt DMR's effort is a laudable one. There's no doubt about it. But I would seriously ask DMR to consider another site. I can see the objections of the community," he said.