7.21.2010

For Oysters, a ‘Remedy’ Turned Catastrophe

In late April, just days into what has turned out to be the largest oil spill in American history, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, with the support of local parish officials, ordered the opening of giant valves on the Mississippi River, releasing torrents of freshwater that they hoped would push oil back out to sea.

Now, reports indicate that the freshwater diversions have had a catastrophic impact on southeastern Louisiana’s oyster beds that is far in excess of the damage done by oil from the spill.

The Associated Press broke the story of the oyster deaths last week, and local news outlets along the coast are following it as well. On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal chimed in with its own in-depth report.

Oysters require saltwater to live, and massive infusions of freshwater can quickly kill them. Once dead, the beds can take two to five years to become commercially viable again.

Now, some oyster fishermen along the coast are reporting mortality rates as high as 80 percent along thousands of acres of oyster beds. In Barataria Bay, one of Louisiana’s most productive oyster fisheries, some beds are 60 percent dead, largely because of the freshwater influx, The Wall Street Journal quoted Louisiana’s top state oyster biologist as saying.

Many oyster beds in gulf waters have been shut down as a precaution because oil contamination was considered likely, but widespread die-offs caused by the oil have not yet been found.

Heavy damage to the oyster beds from the freshwater diversions could prove embarrassing to the Jindal administration, which already finds itself under scrutiny for its ambitious plans to build massive sand and rock structures along the coast to block the oil. Both the sand and rock barriers drew criticism from scientists and federal officials that they would have negative environmental consequences that outweighed their potential benefit in stemming the flow of oil.

Such criticisms deep-sixed a plan by the governor to build rock dikes across tidal inlets leading into Barataria Bay, but did not stand in the way of the construction of massive sand barriers, a project which is still under way in the gulf.

The Jindal administration may already be preparing to deflect criticism over the oyster deaths.

In its article, the Wall Street Journal quotes an unnamed spokesman with the state’s coastal protection authority saying that “rain and the natural flow of the river” were also factors in the decrease in salinity. Attributing specific numbers of oyster deaths to the freshwater diversions would be “difficult,” the spokesman said.

Yet oyster fisheries in nearby Mississippi appear to have been unscathed. “We are finding no major mortalities,” an official with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources recently told the AP.

In statements to the AP and the Journal, Garrett Graves, chairman of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, and a lead official in the state’s oil spill response, indicated that BP would be held responsible for the damage to the oyster beds caused by the freshwater releases.

Source: New York Times


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