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Oystermen experiencing stormy waters

GULF OF MEXICO — Struggling oyster fishermen say it has been a troublesome season.

Heavy rains have kept the oyster reefs closed longer than anyone can remember. There are also concerns about increasing competition from out-of-state fishermen who get licenses to work the reefs in Mississippi waters.

The Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources heard the concerns from frustrated fishermen this week.

“I’ve been around this industry my whole life. I’ve never seen a season this bad before from being overfished. We’re being flooded by other states coming here, taking our resources from our state. Taking their money back to the other states,” said Randy Lesso Jr.

“We’re starving this season. I mean it’s been open six months and we’ve worked less than 50 days. Limited entry is a big thing, but we need to do something about this season now. ‘Cause if I’m gonna get cut out of next season, I want this season to be something,” said oysterman Dustin Pizzi.

Not only have oyster fishermen been pinched by increased competition on the reefs this season, Mother Nature has also been an adversary. Heavy rainfall forced the Department of Marine Resources to shut down the oyster reefs multiple times.

“The entire month of December, except for one day. And that’s what really hurt this oyster season,” said Scott Gordon, who oversees the oyster program for the DMR.

As for the number of oyster boats working the reefs, the DMR has been looking at something called “limited entry.”

Specific restrictions on licenses could, for instance, reduce the number of out of state oyster fishermen. But some worry that approach is not in the best interest of the industry.

“This is public reefs. We have spent hundreds of thousands of federal money to rebuild these reefs. These reefs belong to the public. It doesn’t belong to a certain group of fishermen down in West Hancock or Harrison County,” said commission member Richard Gollott.

“Whenever you do have some kind of program when you’re keeping somebody out, or maybe kicking somebody out, they’re not going to be happy about it,” said Gordon.

The commission decided to give existing license holders the first chance at buying oyster licenses for next season. The commission rejected a proposal to limit the number of licenses to no more than 10 percent of this year’s total.

The commission also voted to give DMR Executive Director William Walker authority to limit the number of licenses, if he determines it’s in the best interest of the oyster industry.

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