PASS CHRISTIAN, MS (WLOX) - The oyster harvest in Mississippi has declined by more than 80 percent in the past decade. Following a string of manmade and natural disasters affecting the industry, the DMR is looking at ways to restore this once thriving industry.
Back in 2004, fishermen harvested nearly a half million sacks of oysters. Ten years later, that number was just over 78,000 sacks. Now, the executive director of the DMR is looking for ways to restore the industry and has declared 2015 "The Year of the Oyster".
On a sunny, but chilly late January morning, WLOX News joined DMR director Jamie Miller, for a trip to the near shore "tonging reef" just south of the Pass Christian harbor. At least a dozen boats were working the reef that morning, with the water as clear as anyone could remember.
"How we doin?" yelled director Miller to the approaching oyster boat.
The oystermen were upbeat. This limited season remains open and most are finding their 10 sack limit.
"We've been getting our limit by eleven thirty or twelve o'clock every day," said one fisherman from Alabama, "Today's just a rough day, we've been working in shore."
It is back breaking work, tonging for oysters. And the fishermen have endured more than their share of industry setbacks in recent years: Katrina, the oil spill and fresh water intrusion from the opening of the Bonnet Carre spillway.
All things out of their control; all a negative impact on their livelihood.
"The agency is going to be really dedicated this year to building a blueprint for the industry, for really hopefully take us the next 10 or 20 years," said Miller.
That's welcome news to Drew Livings and his fellow fishermen. He offered his own suggestion for that industry blueprint: Relaying oysters from other reefs.
"Them closed bayous, Davis and Graveline Bayou, where they won't let us catch 'em, they need to at least let us put them on the reef," he explained, "Relay over here. And put all the oysters on the reef. Don't put them on the fishing reefs where people can rod and reel fish. Put the oysters where they're needed, on this reef."
"We're going to be very ambitious. We're going to take all the best practices from the gulf and other parts of the country and try to incorporate those here in the way we manage and grow our oysters. And the plan is not just to get back to where we were a decade ago, but to even surpass where we were a decade ago," said director Miller.
The fishermen see the future benefit of planting limestone and shells on the reefs in recent years: Next year's oysters.
"Like out here, it's loaded down with little baby oysters. Every one of them is stuck to a piece of limestone. So the limestone did help," said Livings.
One new idea for enhancing the reefs in Mississippi: An oyster hatchery.
"Having an oyster hatchery only would provide larvae for seed for spat for our public reefs and potentially private leases. We're also talking about oyster farming, which happens in Alabama. So, like I said, it's going to be one piece of a multi-tiered program that we hope to implement here in Mississippi," said director Miller.
"This is where we produce oyster seed for research, restoration and farming," said Scott Rikard, as he gave a visiting reporter a tour of the oyster hatchery at Auburn University's shellfish lab on Dauphin Island.
They spawn the oysters here and raise millions of tiny larvae in tanks.
"We start with twelve million and we'll drop those densities down as the larvae get bigger, so at the end we're down to about two and a half to three million oyster larvae per tank. Sounds like a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, they would fit in the palm of your hand," said Rikard.
Those tiny oysters, fed a diet of liquid algae, eventually set on oyster shells and can then be used to help restore a depleted reef.
An oyster hatchery, along with oyster farms like this one in Alabama, could both be pieces of the restoration puzzle to help the industry rebound here in Mississippi.
"The oyster industry isn't just important because it's a fantastic natural resource. In good years, the oyster industry can put as much as 25 to 30 million dollars in South Mississippi's economy. It's important to the restaurant association, it's important to jobs here locally," said Miller, "And so I want to make sure that this year we send that message out, not just to the industry, but statewide and across the coast, that everybody has an investment in this industry."
The DMR director vows that this year, oysters will be getting plenty of attention.
"This year we're going to spend a lot of effort and time, focusing on the oyster resources in Mississippi," director Miller promised.