Commercial oystermen may soon be tonging and dredging again as oyster season could be reopened by the end of next week.
State Department of Marine Resources Public Affairs Director Melissa Scallan on Friday told the Sun Herald the long-delayed oyster season is one step closer to reopening.
"We are waiting on the Pearl River to crest," she said. "We think it should crest this weekend."
After the river crests, Scallan said, one more round of testing will be conducted. If the water sample is clear of bacteria, the season can be reopened.
Scallan said it could take up to 24 hours to get the test results back, adding the DMR will discuss reopening oyster season when it meets Tuesday.
Season closed in December
Oyster season has been closed for more than two months. It was shut down Dec. 11 by the red tide algae outbreak in the Mississippi Sound north of the barrier islands. The outbreak was responsible for several large fish kills as well as the deaths of some birds and marine mammals.
The shutdown affected about 300 licensed oystermen, Scallan said.
When the season was closed, only 15,000 sacks of a DMR-allotted 35,000 sacks of oysters had been harvested.
"We think this season could be really good," Scallan said. "There are still 21,000 sacks left to be harvested."
Just as the red tide was dissipating, oystermen received what could have been another blow to their livelihood when it was announced in January the Bonnet Carre Spillway would be opened. When the spillway was opened in 2011, the resulting influx of fresh water destroyed about 85 percent of the state's oysters.
Local commercial oystermen were hired to move more than 40,000 sacks of oysters from St. Joe reef in Hancock County to reefs in Pass Christian and Biloxi Bay to protect them from possible freshwater damage.
Scallan said 71 oystermen participated in the program. She said the DMR spent $800,000 on the relocation, paying the commercial fishermen $20 per sack.
"The Bonnet Carre opening was not harmful to our oysters this time," she said. "But we had no way of knowing that, so we relocated the oysters just to be safe."
A restoration project to repopulate St. Joe reef with new oysters is scheduled to begin in the spring. It will involve cultivating the reef with cultch material so that larvae, or spat, can attach to the reef and mature.