Oyster season in Mississippi waters opened this morning at sunrise. As MPB’s Evelina Burnett reports, it’s not yet clear how this year’s limited season will go.
It's 43° but feels colder here at the Pass Christian harbor. And on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, that kind of weather means oysters.
The oyster season opens Friday morning, but it's not clear how it's going to go. Darlene Kimball's family has owned Kimball's Seafood here at the Pass Harbor since 1930.
"I'm hoping for the best," she says. "I'm kind of worried. I've been hearing a lot of pros and cons. They're saying there's only a small amount of oysters out there, but then they're saying there's a lot of oysters out there. So we won't really know until we get started."
The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources has set a limited season, with only a few areas open for tonging and dredging, and low sack limits. It wanted to limit it even more, but the commission overseeing the agency voted last week to open some additional areas.
The state’s oyster industry has been beset by a cascade of misfortune, from hurricanes, to the BP oil spill, to the opening of the Bonnet Carre spillway in 2011.
"I had oysters before the BP oil spill - I had 80 boats a day working for me," she says. "Now, we don't really have a season, and I'm lucky if I have 20."
That's pushed some fishermen out of the industry, Kimball says.
"You can't actually consider making a good living for your family when you only get to work for two days and we shut down for a month, or we get going with a good month and then they close it for the year," she says.
The year before Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi harvested close to 500,000 sacks of oysters. Last year, it was 78,000 sacks. DMR director Jamie Miller says he wants to "press the reset button" on how the state manages oysters, to get back to those half-a-million-sack years.
"We need to get private industry to invest in oysters through aquaculture," he says. "We need to expand leases in Mississippi. We need to have an ongoing relay and cultivation program, and we need to take those areas of the sound that we know will produce and really spend some time thinking about how we can keep those reefs intact and how they can supply, year round, an oyster industry."
Mississippi's oyster industry was once a $7 million business. It brought in less than $2 million in 2012.