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Ideas offered to help South Mississippi oyster industry

Dr. Kelly Lucas and Dr. Eric Powell discuss the finding from the Oyster Restoration and Resiliency Plan, which was created by  Gov. Phil Bryant’s Oyster Restoration And Resilience Council, Monday at USM’s Gulf Park campus.
Dr. Kelly Lucas and Dr. Eric Powell discuss the finding from the Oyster Restoration and Resiliency Plan, which was created by Gov. Phil Bryant’s Oyster Restoration And Resilience Council, Monday at USM’s Gulf Park campus. Special to Sun Herald

LONG BEACH -- A council formed to help the oyster industry recover from a 'triple whammy' of disasters has offered recommendations to restore it.

The University of Southern Mississippi hosted its second Science on the Half Shell panel discussion Monday night at its Gulf Park campus. A similar meeting was held in September at USM's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs.

Panelists discussed the findings and suggestions from the state's Oyster Restoration and Resiliency Plan, which was created by Gov. Phil Bryant's Oyster Restoration and Resilience Council. The council was created by executive order in February to examine the diminishing oyster beds along the Coast.

"In 2005 going into the 2005 season, we produced almost 500,000 sacks of oysters," said Kelly Lucas, state Department of Marine Resources chief scientific officer. "Then Hurricane Katrina happened and it dropped our production down to zero."

Lucas said Katrina was part of a "triple whammy" that affected Coast oyster production.

"We were making progress in 2009 as we harvested nearly 350,000 sacks of oysters," she said. "But in 2010, Deepwater Horizon occurred. So, as the oil started moving in, we closed the reefs. Shortly after that, in 2011, they opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway, which produced massive amounts of freshwater, which dropped the dissolved oxygen on our reefs to zero for a long time. The mortality was about 85 percent. We couldn't recover from one thing before something else happened."

In 2014, oyster production had dropped to fewer than 80,000 sacks. At its peak, oyster production can add about $30 million to the state's economy.

Lucas said the goal of the council's plan was to restore the state's oyster economy and find ways to ensure sustainable harvests.

"We want to make the oyster industry healthy again and we want to restore these reefs," she said. "We have to spend our money wisely and we have to pick areas where oysters will grow and produce."

Read Hendon, director of USM's Center for Fisheries Research and Development, said one of the main recommendations from the council was to promote oyster aquaculture.

"This is to enhance our natural stocks and to help the development of new commercial ventures," Hendon said.

Among other recommendations was having a hatchery capable of producing 10 billion larvae a year.

"The council felt it was imperative to use existing aquaculture capabilities within the state and to identify a site that was out of harm's way of hurricanes and tropical storms."

Hendon said the council identified Aqua Green in Perkinston, a private company, as a hatchery for oyster restoration.

"This place was previously involved with fish production before the trials," he said.

The council's longtime goal is to harvest 1 million sacks by 2025.

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