Dramatic downturn in gulf oyster harvests since BP oil spill

PASS CHRISTIAN, MS (WLOX) - Mississippi fishermen harvested nearly 400,000 sacks of oysters in the season before the BP oil spill. Since the spill in 2010, the "best" oyster season has been just 78,000 sacks. Those figures go along with a new report which finds the overall gulf oyster harvest has dropped dramatically since the oil spill.

Longtime fisherman Billy Barnett fills a dockside order for fresh shrimp. This summer's shrimp season has been a strong one for Mississippi fishermen. "Usually they don't last this long, this good," said Barnett, as he sorted medium and large sized gulf shrimp.

But while the shrimp harvest is looking fine, it's a much different story for oysters.  Disappointing and mediocre are words heard to describe the last oyster season. "It was alright the first two weeks. And then after that it went down, real bad. I don't think there will be a next year really. Might last the opening week," said Barnett.

And though he can't prove it, Billy Barnett certainly suspects the BP oil spill or dispersant used in the clean-up are at least partly to blame for the dismal oyster harvests since the spill. "The dead ones. The year after. You would pick up so many oysters, they'd be oysters, but they'd be dead. Just the shell. And you can tell they had just died, that year," said the veteran fisherman.

Seafood dealer Jerry Forte recalls there were oysters to harvest last season; but not all that many. "It was below average. But it was better than expected, probably. There were a few oysters out there, but it didn't last very long," said Forte.

Perhaps the lone bright spot for fishermen was the price. The lower harvest equaled more money for the oysters, some $55 a sack, dockside. "Last year, they were higher than normal, they sure were. The boats were getting more and they were selling for more to the public," said Forte.

Fisherman Barnett says he's thinking of skipping oyster season this fall and may go farther south for shrimp, instead. BP released a statement about the decrease in oyster production since the oil spill.

The company points to a government study which says the drop in oyster harvests is likely due to other conditions. One such condition that affected Mississippi oyster reefs was the freshwater intrusion from the 2012 opening of the Bonnet Carre.

Copyright 2014 WLOX. All rights reserved.