For as long as I can remember, seafood has been my way of life.
I started shrimping at the age of 8. As a teenager, I would dredge and tong for oysters. Commercial fishing is my career, and I’ve operated a number of boats to harvest Mississippi’s bountiful and world-renowned wild oysters. Unfortunately, that way of life is no longer possible for me and many others. After 20 years working in the seafood industry, including harvesting wild oysters, Mississippi’s yields started declining around 2010. Over time, statewide production fell drastically, and it has since become impossible to make ends meet oystering, despite more investment in oyster restoration than ever before. While I am still active in the seafood industry, I had to adapt to new fisheries and stop gathering wild oysters.
Oysters depend on a delicate set of environmental factors to thrive. Over time and with the right conditions, oyster larvae build upon shells and other substrates, forming reefs that can span thousands of acres. However, in recent years different factors have threatened that process, including impacts from the BP spill, changes in salinity, and increased sediment deposits from development.
According to research from The Nature Conservancy, “roughly 13 years ago, Mississippi was harvesting nearly 500,000 sacks of oysters annually ....” Today, those numbers have fallen as low as 3,500 sacks annually. Other states throughout the Gulf of Mexico have also been affected. Across the region, 50 to 85 percent of the original oyster reefs are gone.
That decline was deeply felt in my hometown of Pass Christian, where oysters undergird the economy. The town is situated near what has historically been a productive oyster reef, which has been a boon for the entire community, not just those who gather oysters.
Since Gulf oyster populations started to decline, we’ve seen real, negative economic impacts in Pass Christian. The fishermen felt those impacts first — with fewer oyster sacks on their boats, and fewer dollars in their pockets. As they lost work, local dock operators, other harbor service industries, and gas stations lost business, and were forced to reduce their operations or close.
The impacts aren’t just economic either. Oyster reefs provide important ecological benefits by creating habitat for other marine life, cleaning the water, and acting as a buffer against flooding. Those benefits are also at risk.
Now, myself and other Mississippi oystermen are taking steps to conserve the oyster resources we all depend on. The shells that provide a foundation for oyster larvae are in low supply, so we’ve supported shell recycling programs. Plenty of oystermen are also transitioning to farming oysters off the bottom of the seabed to relieve pressure on wild stocks. In certain instances, oyster fishermen limited their harvesting techniques to reduce impacts even further. We’re doing these things because we care about the future of this industry.
Growing up commercial fishing shaped the man I am today. I’d hate to see a Mississippi where that opportunity is not possible for our children. To get our state back on the right course, we urgently need oystermen and the restaurant industry, state and federal government officials, and nonprofit organizations to find new conservation solutions and work to leverage underutilized restoration funds set aside after the oil spill.
Ryan Bradley is an oysterman and executive director of the Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United, a nonprofit business alliance established in 1974.