Coast oystermen expect the worst from Bonnet Carre release
PASS CHRISTIAN -- State Department of Marine Resources officials on Wednesday said there may be some good news and some bad news coming for area oystermen.
The New Orleans District of the Army Corps of Engineers said on Thursday that the Bonnet Carre Spillway in St. Charles Parish will open on Sunday to help prevent widespread Mississippi River flooding. If 2011, the last time the spillway was opened, is any indication, the river runoff could further damage an already-frail oyster season.
But DMR Chief Scientific Officer Kelly Lucas said there is no reason to assume the worst, at least not yet.
"We don't exactly know what the effects of the opening of the Bonnet Carre will be," she said. "It depends on how long it's going to be open and the amount of water that's released and how many bays will be opened. We are already monitoring the (oyster) reefs so we will know what it looks like before they open the Bonnet Carre and after it's opened."
Opening the spillway
Lucas said the spillway is opened when rivers that run into the Mississippi are flooded to the extent that there is a threat to life and property.
"If there is a threat to New Orleans, they will open the spillway to allow the river water to flow out into Lake Pontchartrain and then into the Gulf of Mexico rather than proceeding through its normal channel," she said.
The 2011 opening of the Bonnet Carre was the last part of a trifecta including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the BP oil spill in 2010, which experts use to describe the ups and downs of Coast oyster harvesting over the past 10 years. All caused extensive damage to the area's oyster beds.
"When they opened the Bonnet Carre in 2011, we lost 85 percent of our reefs," Lucas said.
The Bonnet Carre opened May 9, 2011, and remained open for 42 days -- and 330 of the spillway's 350 bays were opened.
Lucas said the conditions surrounding the 2011 opening were much different than today's.
"It (was) warm and we were in extreme drought conditions," she said. "When they opened it, they opened it at 94 percent, and it was open for a really long time. It released a lot of fresh water and the salinity level in the Sound dropped dramatically."
Recent good oyster weather
She said a recent large amount of rain may actually help the oysters.
"There's already been a lot of fresh water from the rain so hopefully the opening won't affect the salinity level," Lucas said.
The good news for oystermen is the aggressive red tide algae bloom that has been in the Sound north of the barrier islands since early December may finally be weakening.
The outbreak closed area beaches and oyster reefs. Officials said the oyster reefs were closed Dec. 11 as a "precautionary measure" when some areas reported more than 1 million cells per liter of water of the algae. When algal concentrations exceed 5,000 cells per liter of water, the closure is triggered.
Lucas said the cooler weather has helped kill the red tide, which thrives in warm water.
"The samples we took (Tuesday) showed zero to very low cells, and by very low I mean less than 1,000 cells per liter in some locations," she said. "We're thinking the fresh water we've had with all of the rain and the cooler weather has helped to dissipate the red tide."
The DMR will continue to take samples, Lucas said. If another sample shows low levels of the bacteria, oysters will then be tested for presence of the bacteria. If the tests results are favorable, oysters will then be sent to the FDA for a final set of tests before the reefs and oyster season can be reopened.
"It's a two-step process and the first step will take about three to five days," she said. "The second set of testing can take anywhere from two to eight weeks depending on their protocol."
Oystermen seeking relief
For some oystermen, the season cannot reopen soon enough.
At Pass Christian Harbor, there's a notable absence of boats in the Sound and a large presence of them at the docks.
Fishermen Rudy Tolar, James "Catfish" Miller and Rum Phan were at the Pass Harbor on Wednesday morning discussing the shortened oyster season.
They all said they wished they were on their boats and back at work.
"They closed the reefs Dec. 11 and now there's the Bonnet Carre," Tolar said. "Historically, the spillway opening has killed the oysters. It destroyed the industry. This was the first season dredgers were allowed to go back to work and now we're stuck here paying stall rent on our boats."
Tolar said he pays $215 a month in slip fees at the harbor.
He said the red tide has also affected his other business interests.
"Nobody wants to buy shrimp from Mississippi right now," he said. "At least that's what the word is."
The oystermen agreed the oyster season had one of the best they've seen in years until the red tide hit. Now they've been out of work for almost a month, and there is no end in sight.
Tolar and Miller both said they are fed up with what they consider to be apathy from the DMR. Each emailed Gov. Phil Bryant's office seeking answers and some hope for relief.
They were not happy with the reply.
"The email said, 'There is no private investment in the oyster reefs from the fishermen,' but what about that boat I have that I paid $150,000 for -- is that not an investment?" Tolar said.
Clay Chandler, Bryant's director of communications, said the reefs are owned by the state.
"Ninety percent of the state's oyster production comes from reefs owned by the state, meaning the state is responsible for their upkeep and maintenance," he said. "The other 10 percent comes from reefs leased from the state. The state recognizes that oyster fishermen invest in boats, crews, equipment and other expenses necessary to fish for oysters."
During a specially called meeting in December, the Commission on Marine Resources voted to allow DMR officials to explore avenues to help the stagnant oyster industry.
The CMR will next meet Jan. 19.