Mississippi officials say the state’s oyster reefs are unlikely to reopen for months because of a harmful algal bloom called a red tide. As MPB’s Evelina Burnett reports, the state says it will jump start oyster restoration projects to help fishermen find work while the reefs are shut down.
The algae causing the red tide contains toxins that accumulate in oysters. It doesn’t kill them, but it does mean that the oyster meat has to be tested and given the all-clear by an FDA certified lab before the reefs can be reopened. Department of Marine Resources Chief Science Officer Kelly Lucas says this could take some time.
"We walked through the timeline, and each test takes a couple of weeks for each stage, and it also depends on who's in line before you. So we're looking a the best possible scenario to re-open the reefs in March or April," she says.
At a specially called meeting just before Christmas, worried oyster fishermen filled the meeting room of the Commission on Marine Resources. Many suggested possible work they could do while the reefs are closed, such as relaying oysters from areas where they normally can’t be harvested, to the working reefs.
Fisherman John Livings says this work won’t help with the red tide - but it could grow the number of oysters available once it’s over.
"It only takes 14 days to purge an oyster out and then it's safe to eat. So if we can get the oysters while it's closed, put them out there and let them sit, if it's going to be three months, those oysters will be marketable oysters by the time this red tide is over with," he says.
The state received $11 million in disaster money after the 2011 opening of the Bonnet Carre spillway to help restore the state’s oysters, projects it was going to start after the oyster season closed. But given the current situation, the Commission instead directed the agency to develop an oyster restoration project "as soon as possible."