Mississippi Has an Oyster Problem

State's once-vital industry is collapsing as government efforts to rebuild reefs fail
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 26, 2023 2:25 PM CDT
Mississippi Has an Oyster Problem
Oyster fishermen tong the waters of the Biloxi Bay at Shearwater Reef off the coast of Ocean Springs, Miss., in this file photo.   (John Fitzhugh/the Sun Herald via AP)

Mississippi has a rich history in the oyster industry, but that industry appears to be on the brink of collapse. A story in ProPublica details the steep decline over the last two decades or so, pointing out that the number of companies licensed to process oysters in the state has dropped from 13 in 2004 to three in 2022. And it's not because of consolidation—the reason is far more basic. "If you don't have oysters, you can't sell them" is how Jennifer Jenkins, manager of Crystal Seas Seafood, puts it. The number of oysters in the Mississippi Sound has plunged thanks to a slew of factors, starting with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, followed by a huge BP oil spill five years later. Another major factor that may not be as obvious also is at play: federal protocols to prevent flooding.

For example, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway in 2011 for more than 40 days to ease Mississippi River flooding. The huge volume of freshwater released into the Sound reduced its salinity and killed an estimated 85% of its oysters. The state, meanwhile, has spent millions attempting to rebuild oyster reefs, unsuccessfully. One $10 million project involved spraying a limestone mixture at 12 sites in 2013, but up to 90% of the mixture sank uselessly into the mud. A 2021 follow-up study found zero adult oysters at the dozen sites. The story by Anita Lee details all of the above and suggests part of the solution might be opening up more of the Sound to private leaseholders—oyster fishermen—to let them manage it instead of slow-moving government entities. Generally speaking, that has worked in neighboring Louisiana. Read the full story. (Or check out other notable longform stories.)

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