Commercial fishermen voice frustrations

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - They are struggling to catch shrimp and worried about predictions of a dismal oyster season. Commercial fishermen voiced their concerns at Tuesday's meeting of the Commission on Marine Resources.

The BP oil spill impacted their livelihood last year, while this summer they've faced the consequences of freshwater intrusion.

Several fishermen were also critical of the DMR's cultch planting project on the oyster reefs, saying the money should have been used for an oyster relay program , putting local fishermen to work transporting and transplanting healthy oysters to help revive the reefs.

"This year is gone. It's history. If you go down there and catch the few oysters that you've got down there, you ain't going to have no spat. None whatsoever for all the shells and gravel you put out there," said oysterman Manny Skinner.

Skinner told commissioners the cultch planting project should be replaced by an oyster relay program, hiring local fishermen to relay healthy oysters to help revive the reefs.

"All the shells and rocks that's being thrown out over there, that's a lot of money. Could have put all the fishermen to work. But instead, all the fishermen are sitting here wondering," said fisherman Mark Stewart.

Shellfish Bureau Director Scott Gordon defended the cultch planting as a productive way to revive the reefs.

"As we speak right now, we have oyster larvae settling on that new cultch," said Gordon.

While discussion about oysters got the most attention, serious concerns remain about the dismal shrimp season.

"Commercial Fisherman: From about July until now, no shrimp.  And I let you know about that," said shrimp fisherman Chin Pham.

"Talking to a lot of different folks in the community and a lot of the old time fishermen, they say that yes, it is as bad as they've ever seen it," said Commissioner Steve Bosarge, who represents the commercial fishing industry.

There may be some federal help on the horizon for struggling commercial fishermen. The DMR's executive director told fishermen he's petitioned the Secretary of Commerce to declare a federal fisheries disaster for oysters and crabs, based on the considerable damage caused by this summer's freshwater intrusion from the opening of the Bonne Carre spillway. That could clear the way for emergency federal funding.

"If in fact that happens, one of the things we're considering is utilizing fishermen to do a relay program," said Dr. Bill Walker.

The commission voted to give Dr. Walker the authority to set an opening date for a limited oyster season, likely to begin around mid to late October.

One of the oystering areas that shows the most promise is located "between the bridges" in the Bay of St. Louis. However, that spot may be off limits because of a change in the statute that regulates oyster fishing.

Scott Gordon told WLOX News that DMR lawyers are investigating that concern.

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