Oyster Fishermen Surveying Reefs For DMR

Hurricane Katrina destroyed many of the oyster reefs in Mississippi waters. But the Department of Marine Resources has found a way to salvage the season for local fishermen.

Oyster harvesters who are normally tonging and dredging the reefs this time of year, are doing survey work instead.

Fishermen are helping ensure successful harvests for the future.

It's a bright, clear morning on the Mississippi Sound just south of the Pass. This time of year one would expect to find dozens of oyster boats working the reefs. But this isn't your normal November.

"The initial assessments indicate we've had about a 90 percent mortality on our Mississippi oysters. Some of the reefs have shifted and we've had some burial in some areas," said Bradley Randall with the DMR.

Hurricane Katrina rolled over the reefs just days before oyster season was set to open.  And although Katrina wiped out the season, Mississippi oystermen are still working the reefs. They've traded tongs for cane poles.

DMR hired more than 50 fishermen to help survey the damage.

"We found out through the years that the cane pole is a lot more sophisticated and collects better data than the computers do. By using a cane pole they can find out what the different sub striate types are. Whether it's hard reef, oyster shells, soft mud, sand. And the depths tell us where there's a good place we can rehabilitate the reefs," Randall explained.

An oysterman aboard the "Captain Zeb" was happy to help survey the Sound. Determining exact damages is an important first step in rebuilding the reefs.

"Hopefully, the oysters will come back. Right now it looks like they're scattered out. Yeah, it'll get better," the fishermen predicted.

Mississippi oystermen can actually credit an earlier hurricane for making this pay day possible. This program is being funded with federal money that was set aside to restore the reefs after Hurricane Ivan.

"We're paying each boat six hundred dollars a day. They're the experienced ones. We have about 57 harvesters participating in this program right now. We anticipate more in the future. But they can cover a lot more area than what we do. Plus, they have the experience of being on the water," said Randall.

Fishermen without a season can still make money, while the DMR relies on the expertise of those fishermen to determine what Katrina left beneath the waters.

The DMR has enough federal funding to keep the program going for about 30 days. Once the damage is surveyed, the department will begin rebuilding the damaged reefs by planting shell material for oyster production.