Early reports from the Shearwater oyster reef were positive as 45 boats filled with oystermen tonged the water early Tuesday morning.
Oyster harvesting opened for the first time in 54 years in Biloxi Bay after water quality reached a standard that was acceptable to inspectors.
By the end of the day, the Department of Marine Resources reported 441 sacks were harvested from 46 boats, 31 of which were commercial vessels.
DMR Director Jamie Miller said his office began intensive water studies in 2014, and the standards to allow raw seafood to be consumed were finally reached this month.
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Those standards had been increased in the 1960s and 1970s, Miller said.
“For the first time in 50 years, we’ve been able to prove that water quality is such that they should be allowed to be consumed raw,” he said.
Fishermen seemed pleased with the results after an hour or so of tonging.
“They’re kind of spotty, you have to move around a little bit to get them located, but they’re good-looking oysters,” said oysterman Ted Gillespie of Coden, Alabama.
“They’ve got a lot of meat in them, they’re real salty, good-tasting oysters.”
Gillespie and other oystermen said the Biloxi reefs appear to be much healthier than the Pass Christian-area reefs that were closed last month after reaching harvest limits.
While there is a 15-sack daily limit, there is no total sack harvest cap on the reefs because only tonging is allowed, said Commission on Marine Resources chairman Richard Gollott.
“You can’t hurt the reef with tongs; all they do is help it,” Gollott said. “When you beat the shells off, you leave a clean spot for the little oysters to attach to.”
“That’s a sight,” Gollott said, watching the oystermen working the waters.
He is a third-generation seafood fisherman. His grandfather, an oysterman originally, moved from fishing to processing and the family has been on that side of the industry since.
“It’s great news for the industry and it’s great news to the community that water quality over time has improved here,” Miller said.
SunHerald.com readers asked about the size of the oysters and how old they are.
Melissa Scallan, spokeswoman for DMR, said shells vary in size depending on where the oyster is in its life cycle. Oysters must be at least 3 inches in length to be eligible for harvest.
A reader said she’d seen oysters as big as a salad plate at the George Ohr Museum in Biloxi. While none of the oysters were that big, Scallan said, there were some larger shells among those brought in early Tuesday.
An oyster can live anywhere between one and three years, Scallan said. If not harvested, oysters will get eaten by predators, or if there’s heavy rain or tropical storm, they can get buried in the bottom of the bay.