Across the Gulf, oysters are in trouble

If you’re like me and you live on the Gulf Coast, oysters have been a topic of growing concern. The opening of Louisiana’s Bonnet Carre Spillway twice in one year, a historic first, led to the flushing of unprecedented levels of freshwater into oyster habitats along the Gulf. This left oyster beds east of the Mississippi River completely decimated. 

Because of their abundance across the Gulf, oysters are typically cheap, and they are everywhere. There are dozens of restaurants that usually serve Gulf oysters for a dollar or as little as a quarter at happy hour. This year, however, New Orleans’ iconic Acme Oyster House and Drago’s Seafood had to stop selling raw oysters completely in October. 

I feel like I’ve taken for granted how important oysters are to our Gulf culture. We’ve been blessed with such abundance that we can serve entire dishes made from oysters. Items like an oyster po’ boy would be an unimaginable luxury if you used West Coast oysters that typically cost $3.00 or more a piece. Without the affordable prices that come with abundance, many of our favorite foods would become luxury. 

This year really put into perspective the fragility of this iconic Gulf seafood. But 2019 isn’t the first year to show signs of oysters being in trouble. 

I’ll admit that when I attended the annual meeting of the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission meeting earlier this year, I had no idea that oyster production had been declining in the Gulf since the mid-2000s. State representatives from Florida, Alabama and Mississippi all painted a grim picture. 

“Oysters are in trouble, and we have no idea how to help them,” was the message I took away from the Eastern Gulf presentations. Florida, Alabama and Mississippi have been using money from the BP drilling disaster settlement and other funds to restore their natural reefs, but with little progress. 

In Florida, young oysters are not surviving into adulthood. Ditto with Alabama. I believe the phrase “throwing good money after bad” might have been used. Low oxygen, a lack of freshwater flowing from waters that passed through Georgia, and acidification are all suspected, but no scientific consensus has emerged yet.   

Florida oyster landings:

Alabama oyster landings:

In Mississippi, oysters were in big trouble even before the opening of the Bonnet Carre spillway delivered a crushing amount of freshwater to the beleaguered oyster fishery. We may not have any Mississippi oysters this year. Oysters need a healthy mix of salt and freshwater and prolonged changes in either direction can be lethal for oysters that have no way of moving out of the path of freshwater. 

Mississippi oyster landings: 

Texas presented a more complicated situation. Oyster production plummeted in 2015 but has rebounded in the last couple years. The overall trend since the early 2000s is still one of decline. Officials in Texas are also concerned about the future of their fishery. 

Louisiana is the one exception. While the public oyster reefs continue to struggle in line with what other states have been experiencing, private leases are doing well. Private leases are natural oyster reefs but the access to the reef is limited to a single individual or company. That individual or company is responsible for maintaining the reef with its structural material called “cultch” (limestone, old oyster shells, concrete, etc.) and baby oysters called “spats.” 

The situation is complicated by the fact that most of the spats and some of the cultch are taken from the public oyster reefs. The public reefs act as a commonly owned seed bank that everyone is allowed to draw from once per year.

I asked the Louisiana officials why their reefs were doing well when others were collapsing. Could it be that land loss and saltwater was somehow creating more suitable oyster habitat from what used to be freshwater marshes? “No” was the answer from Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries. They believed that Louisiana’s success comes from the private model. If other states turned their public reefs over to the private sector, better management would follow. 

I’m not sure I buy that argument. Louisiana has always had mostly private leases and that did nothing to prevent large drops in oyster production in the late ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s from hurricanes and freshwater events. But if private management is the answer, we could just mandate those best practices with public laws. 

Louisiana is also relying on total pounds of meat harvested. A study from 2006 looked at pounds per acre harvested and showed a consistent decline in oyster production going back to the 1960s. We need an updated chart to really see if steady production has come from simply increasing our oyster harvesting effort. 

Because oysters are incapable of moving and rely on water quality for their abundance, they represent the canary in the coal mine in terms of Gulf water quality. What the state’s data shows is that all of our fisheries could be headed for big trouble. Drastic changes in salinity, hypoxia and red tide from nutrient pollution, and industrial/plastic pollution in our waterways will continue to devastate our fisheries if we don’t clean up our act. 

Some have pointed to off-bottom aquaculture as a more reliable way to produce oysters. But even the most ardent proponents acknowledge that aquaculture can produce only a fraction of wild natural reefs can produce. Aquacultured oysters are also a lot more expensive. If we don’t start taking better care of our water, we all need to get used to paying $3.00 or more per oyster. 

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