DMR Replanting Storm Damaged Oyster Reefs

The Department of Marine Resources is helping restore the hard-hit oyster industry in Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina destroyed many of the most productive oyster reefs.

A "shell planting" project is a first step in restoring the storm damaged reefs.

An avalanche of oyster shells rains down on the Mississippi Sound, just off Henderson Point. High pressure hoses blast giant piles of shell over a 75 acre site. Five thousand cubic yards of oyster shell will help restore productivity to this storm-damaged reef.

"After the larvae are in the water, they begin to settle out. And they try to find a clean, hard surface on which to attach to. And that's the purpose the oyster shells are going to serve," said Scott Gordon, who directs the Shellfish Bureau for the DMR.

Recycled oyster shells are the preferred material for growing more oysters. Once deposited on the reefs, the shells should begin producing new oysters soon. It's boosting the natural process of Mother Nature, but still takes time.

"We're looking at 18 to 24 months from when the oyster larvae attaches to the cultch material, to a market size oyster in Mississippi," Gordon explained.

The shell plantings are normally considered an enhancement to the oyster industry. But this year's project is far more critical, since Katrina destroyed so many of the established reefs.  Early estimates show the hurricane caused significant damage to more than 90 percent of the 12 thousand acres of oyster reefs in Mississippi waters.

"The reefs were physically scoured and moved. We had them covered over with mud and silt and debris. We also had some instances of low water quality and dissolved oxygen, so the reefs actually smothered," Gordon said.

Restoring them requires time and money. Gordon says this 140 thousand dollar project is the first of several such efforts.

"I'm anticipating getting a considerable amount of money to help us rebuild these reefs," said Gordon.

That's welcome news to the fishermen who depend on the reefs to make a living.

Scott Gordon says oyster season this fall remains in doubt because of the extensive storm damage. If there is a season, it will likely be for a limited time, in limited areas of the Mississippi Sound.