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Mother Nature Plagues Mississippi Oyster Season

March 24, 1987

BILOXI, Miss. (AP) _ This oyster season has been so bad along the Mississippi Gulf Coast that last weekend’s Biloxi Oyster Festival was forced to serve imports.

″See that mound,″ said Billy Gollott, pointing to a pile of gray and white shells across the street from his processing plant in Biloxi. ″Those are all from Louisiana and Texas. Not one is from Mississippi.″

The shellfish are offshore, but pollution makes the crop unfit for harvesting and threatens a lucrative and traditional industry. Health officials have closed nearly all the state’s oyster reefs since mid-December because heavy rain washed pollution into the Gulf of Mexico, raising fecal coliform bacteria levels.

″For Mississippi, I think this is the worst year I’ve ever seen,″ said Gollott, whose family has been oystering and processing the shellfish for at least four decades. ″And this town survives on tourists and seafood.″

About 3,000 oystermen usually work out of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, said Fred Deegan, chief of the salt water fisheries division of the Mississippi Bureau of Marine Resources.

While state studies show oystering in Mississippi is usually a $7.8 million to $11.7 million industry, less than $1 million in landings have been reported this year, Deegan said. Oystering in Mississippi is dwarfed by the industry in Louisiana and Texas and by Mississippi’s own shrimping industry, which raises $96.8 million to $142.2 million a year.

Wholesale prices have risen from $7 to $10 per sack of oysters in 1983 to $15 to $20 a sack for Louisiana oysters today, Gollott said. Each sack contains 100-120 pounds of oysters.

Oystermen all over the Gulf Coast have run into many of the same problems their Mississippi counterparts, but Mississippi officials say this state has been hit hardest. Andonly about six weeks are left in the season.

The closed beds won’t be reopened until Thursday at the earliest, said J.O. May, director of the state Health Department’s sanitation division.

″The problem has been Mother Nature,″ said John Cirino, a biologist with the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs. ″I hesitate to say that we even had oysters on 20 percent of our stable fields.″

A predator, the oyster drill, has claimed much of the state’s 9,500 acres of reefs. And an early season drought and winter rain disrupted the balance between salt and fresh water the oysters need to grow.

May said runoff from heavy rain also brought waste from animals and septic tanks in southern Mississippi, and little sea water swept in to purify the oyster beds, May said.

May said the department recently changed a policy on testing that would allow the state to open reefs with one week instead of two weeks of testing below limits for fecal coliform bacteria.

But tests of 10 reefs March 12 found only one reef had acceptable bateria counts and no oysters were on those beds, May said.

″If anyone feels sorry for the fishermen this year, I do,″ May said.

Cirino said the industry is traditionally unstable, but the shrinking acreage of oyster reefs is a longtime trend. Reefs were closed in Pascagoula Bay in 1961 and in Biloxi Bay in 1974 because of pollution, which continues to force oystermen further and further offshore.

″I think the ultimate answer might be to relay the oysters,″ May said. ″You find good water a bit further out and move them there, monitoring the oysters until they purge themselves of the pollution.″

Researchers also are experimenting with raising the oysters in ponds, but Cirino, Deegan and Gollott say the natural fluctuations in the industry lead them to believe oystering will rebound in Mississippi.

″We’re run the gauntlet of conditions. The same things that were going on then (past decade) are going on now, and we came back,″ Cirino said.