Oystermen await scientists’ post-oil spill findings

GULF OF MEXICO — Louisiana may delay the start of the oyster season on most public seed grounds while scientists collect oysters and sediment to check for any damage from last year’s BP PLC oil spill.

National Resource Damage Assessment teams will begin next week to look for information including how big, fat and thick on the waterbottoms the oysters are in various places, said Harry Blanchet, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

He said that because it will be another month before the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission meets again, it authorized Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham last Thursday to delay the season up to two weeks — from Oct. 17 to as late as one-half hour before sunrise on Nov. 1.

If assessment teams finish their collections in a week, there may be no delay in areas from Vermilion Bay to the Mississippi Sound, Blanchet said. Otherwise, Barham can open the season there with 72 hours public notice.

Blanchet said Louisiana has about 1.6 million acres of public grounds, though large swaths of that are in areas where the water is too salty for most oysters. He did not know how many acres were hit by oil.

“Many of those areas did get closed,” he said. “But in some cases it was precautionary closures because oil was projected to be in that area. I don’t know how much got impacted directly.”

A few oystering areas off the mouth of the Mississippi River are still closed, according to a map on the department website.

About 65,000 acres in Sabine and Calcasieu lakes and 380,000 acres in private leases are not affected. The west cove of Calcasieu Lake was already scheduled to open Nov. 1.

Precautionary closures after the oil spill kept oyster boats out of some of Louisiana’s richest areas, which include leases harvested year round. And, in an attempt to keep oil out of Louisiana’s wetlands, fresh water was diverted from inland waterways during the spill, killing oysters by diluting brackish water.

The department’s samples from about 35,000 acres of public seed beds found the oysters there in numbers and sizes big enough for harvest, Blanchet said.

He said the department is also spreading crushed limestone over about 200 acres of the Mississippi Sound this week as “cultch” where oyster larvae can anchor and grow. Later this month, a similar project is planned for California Bay in Plaquemines Parish. Each project costs about $2 million, Blanchet said.

Cultch can be anything hard — shells, limestone, even crushed concrete.

“It really is adding new habitat, not just planting a crop,” he said.

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