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Oystermen sailing choppy waters

Industry seeing worst year since Katrina

In 2005, Mississippi oystermen were left pondering their future after Hurricane Katrina devastated the state’s fleet and reefs. Now, they are experiencing another “perfect storm,” battling not only weather, but also increased competition and food safety issues following a norovirus outbreak.

“We are starving this season,” oysterman Randy Lesso Jr. said bluntly in a statement.

The harvest season got off to a forgettable start as inclement weather delayed the season’s opening. Heavy rainfall forced the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to delay the opening of the harvest season last September. And, the rains continued, forcing more closures.

During the month of December, the reefs were open only one day.

A good example of the on-and-off season was seen just this month. The DMR announced that two approved oyster-harvest areas that had been closed would reopen to oyster boats April 7. Two days later, those same two areas were closed again, and would stay closed for almost an entire week.

The state oystermen, at the same time, have been dealing with increased competition from out-of-state oystermen. Oyster license sales spiked beginning last season.

This increase in license sales prompted the DMR to formulate a plan to restrict the sale of oyster licenses for this season. At a Sept. 2009 meeting, the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources (CMR) passed a motion that stated, in part: “If it is determined that there is an unusual increase in the oyster license sales, and it is determined that it is necessary to conserve the fishery resource, the executive director is authorized to suspend the issuance of oyster licenses through the end of the 2009-2010 oyster season.”

The tough season this year has many oystermen concerned because the restriction in licenses is back for the upcoming season. Last month, the CMR voted to restrict 2010-2011 commercial oyster license sold this month to current 2009-2010 license holders. During this month, current license holders are limited to purchasing the same number and type of licenses they held last season. After April 30, licenses will be available restriction-free.

Just as with last year’s motion, the DMR is authorized to suspend license sales entirely if there is “an unusual increase” in license sales.

Mississippi oystermen say they are already seeing increased pressure from out-of-state competitors, and want limits put on Mississippi waters. However, CMR vice chairman and commercial seafood processor Richard Gollott has advocated a measured, conservative approach.

“We have spent hundreds of thousands of federal money to rebuild these reefs (following Katrina),” Gollott said in a statement. “These reefs belong to the public. It doesn’t belong to a certain group of fishermen down in West Hancock or Harrison County.”

Local oystermen are seeing out-of-state pressure on another front. In late March, it made headlines nationwide when nearly a dozen attendees of a conference held in Jackson County became ill after eating raw oysters. Another 11 people became ill after eating raw oysters at a wedding in New Orleans.

The tainted oysters were traced to three oyster-harvesting areas in Louisiana, which were promptly closed. It took officials longer to determine exactly what was wrong with the oysters.

Early this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it found tested samples contained a new strain of norovirus. The virus is not serious — symptoms such as chills, fever, nausea and diarrhea usually last only a few days.

While none of the tainted product came from Mississippi and the Louisiana areas have reopened to oystermen, the scare is a public relations problem for an industry that is already struggling.

Ironically, Mississippi’s senior U.S. senator had been fighting new regulations that would restrict the raw oyster industry. Last November, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) co-sponsored the Gulf Oyster Industry Jobs Protection Act (S.2752), introduced by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), following a proposal by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the sale of oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico during the warm-weather months.

Cochran’s concerns are shared by the DMR, the State Department of Health and Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.).

“I would much rather see the FDA spend its time investigating foreign shrimp being exported into the United States than create new requirements on an industry that is already heavily regulated by both the federal government and the states,” Taylor said in a letter to the FDA.

The FDA said the new regulations are aimed at preventing the spread of Vibrio vulnificus, which can be fatal when eaten by someone with liver disease, diabetes or a weakened immune system.

Cochran said, “The (FDA) would have to show that its proposed regulations would do more good than harm, not only for the industry but for the people who enjoy eating raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico.”

The bill was referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. There has been no further action on the legislation.

All news has not been bad. In late March, the DMR announced that Mississippi’s inshore artificial reefs had been totally restored to their pre-Katrina condition. This was a monumental accomplishment considering that the 2005 storm took 35 percent of the oyster fleet and killed 90-95 percent of the oyster population.

The DMR also said roughly 70 percent of the offshore reefs had been rebuilt, too.

And, on April 6 the CMR decided to authorize a special management season for oysters harvested in selected areas of the Mississippi Sound. The areas are opened to dredging, an activity that breaks up oyster clusters, providing more room for growth, reduces reef-destroying mussels and cleans existing shell material from fouling.

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