State regulators opened oyster season Nov. 5, a bit later than normal this year with a fair amount of caution after Mississippi River flooding last year kept the season to a paltry six days of tonging only.
The season normally runs from October through April, even beyond with ideal conditions.
This year the Department of Marine Resources gave the go-ahead for a two-month season and they’re watching closely every day to see how the oysters are holding up. “If it looks like the reefs can handle a longer period of time, we might look at extending it,” said Scott Gordon, DMR’s shellfish bureau director. “If it looks like they’re not holding up as well or there’s not a lot of participation (by oystermen), we may recommend shutting down sooner.”
At the outset, there were about 110 licensed boats going out daily to dredge the reefs in the western Sound. Captains are required to drop off notification slips and report their catches each day at check stations at Bayou Caddy in Hancock County and at the Pass Christian Harbor.
DMR adds the information to its data base to keep track of where and how many sacks are hauled in and who they’re sold to. And each sack has to be tagged, Gordon said.
As of Saturday, Nov. 17, 20,980 sacks had been harvested, averaging 1,748 sacks per day.
Most oysters are harvested by independent commercial oystermen who dredge the reefs. A handful of people get a recreational license to tong the reefs.
“Last year we had the season only open for tongers and they got about 65 sacks in a six-day period,” Gordon said.
Tonging for oysters in the traditional way is slow, hard work. Gordon compares it to raking leaves into a pile, except that “you’re standing on a boat with 15 foot tongs.”
Tongers gather up the oysters, pull them up to the boat and then cull them by size before sacking them.
Mississippi’s oysters beds were closed by 2010‘s oil spill and damaged by last year’s drought and the opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway. “We saw a lot of mortality to our reefs from that,” said Gordon. Add to the list high temperatures and hurricanes.
“That’s a lot of things to deal with,” Gordon said. “Oysters can’t get up and move.”
Mississippi has about 10 or 12 acres of oyster reefs, mainly in the western Sound. “Prior to Katrina, the state alone had out-produced the East Coast of the U.S.”
One season before Katrina, the oyster catch was valued at more than $72 million.
“We did have some very good oyster seasons prior to Katrina. We’re trying to get back to a normal season. We’re not there yet but we’re working hard to get there.”
DMR checks the vitality of the reefs by sample dredging at random locations.
The state replenishes the natural reefs and creates new reefs by adding clean shells and limestone gravel called cultch for the young oysters have a clean, hard surface to attach themselves to. It takes 18 to 24 months for the larvae to grow to the marketable 3-inch size.
Louisiana is usually top oyster producer, followed by Texas and Washington state. Typically, Gordon said, Mississippi is fourth or fifth.
Joe Jenkins, owner of Crystal Seas Seafood in Pass Christian, is at the harbor every day, checking out the oyster harvest when the boats come in. About 95 percent of his seafood processing business and its 110 employees depend on oysters.
This year’s season got off to a good start, yielding “really nice oysters, salty and plump,” but Jenkins isn’t optimistic about the long haul.
“I’m hopeful it will last but it’s not likely. The quantities are going down every day.”
He said the oyster harvest in Mississippi “has been on the decline ever since Katrina.”
Jenkins has been in the seafood business for 30 years, the last 16 in Pass Christian. His operation is believed to be the only oyster processing plant in Mississippi certified by state and federal regulators.
He ships oysters coast to coast and if Mississippi’s oyster reefs come up short, he buys from Texas and Alabama oystermen to sell to his wholesale seafood supplier customers.
His employees process up to 1,000 gallons a day of shucked oysters, he said.
They shuck and pack grocery store containers and gallon size containers, frozen oysters on the half shell and breaded oysters sold by Red Lobster and other restaurants.
In home kitchens, Thanksgiving and Christmas are considered oyster holidays, Jenkins said. “Everybody has oyster dressing and a lot of others have fried oysters or oysters done in a variety of ways.”
The oyster harvest is “extremely important,” Jenkins said, to boat owners, deckhands, harbor employees and people who sell marine supplies. They’re very crucial to the Pass and the state economy.”
As to the industry’s future, Jenkins said, “I think it looks good if we can have some luck and not have natural disasters for the next few years. Then we’ll be back on track.”