The holidays are all about tradition. This year many of us will be experiencing a very different holiday season: one where we will not be able to celebrate with our family and friends. I’ll miss the usual celebrations, but I will take some solace in enjoying my favorite dishes. One of the iconic dishes that Gulf Coast residents have enjoyed for generations during the holidays is oyster dressing.
For decades, we have relied on our oyster industry and a healthy ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico to provide an abundance of relatively affordable oysters to make dressing and stuff in po-boys. In other parts of the country, oysters are a luxury. And if we don’t do anything to recover our declining oyster populations in Louisiana, it could become out of reach for us, too.
COVID-19 closures have hit restaurants hard, and oyster farmers are reporting a dramatically reduced demand for their product. Natural and man-made disasters, including the opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway twice in one year, has decimated oyster reefs east of the Mississippi River with the intrusion of unprecedented levels of freshwater.
Mississippi closed their public oyster grounds for the 2019-2020 season. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is shutting down wild oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay for as many as five years to facilitate the recovery of its ecosystem. Even though Louisiana is doing better than most other Gulf states, we are also seeing declines in our oyster populations and production.
Protecting and enhancing our coastal habitat will be vital to ensuring oysters can thrive in the Gulf. So, what can we do? We need recovery plans in Gulf states to coordinate the research and management of commercial harvests along with the restoration and building of new reefs. Fishery managers and local governments need to safeguard oyster habitats and designate some reefs as protected sanctuaries to help boost the populations.
Thankfully, Louisiana just released a new Oyster Management and Rehabilitation Strategic Plan. While the plan is not perfect, it contains strategies like the development of protected spawning reefs that would make our oyster resources stronger and more resilient.
There is no single solution that will solve all the challenges affecting the restoration of healthy oyster stocks and production in the Gulf of Mexico. But there are steps that will help manage and build oyster habitats, moving them toward recovery before we find ourselves fondly looking back on the days of when we enjoyed abundant and tasty oysters.
Raleigh Hoke is the campaign director for Healthy Gulf, an organization that provides research, communications, and coalition-building tools needed to reverse the long pattern of over exploitation of the Gulf of Mexico’s natural resources.
The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.