Louisiana takes 'crucial' step to save coast and oyster industry _lowres

Associated Press file photo Mounds of crumbled concrete and shucked oyster shells intended to be submerged to help rebuild oyster reefs sit along the roadside in Hopedale.

Louisiana is taking a step it hopes will save both its coast and its oyster industry: It’s renewing an oyster leasing program.

The Louisiana Legislature recently passed two bills that lift a 14-year-old moratorium on new leases for oyster farmers. Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to sign the bills soon.

Lifting the moratorium will help oyster farmers because they will be able to develop new oyster grounds out of the path of diversions of Mississippi River water and sediment. The diversions play a central role in the state’s efforts in rebuilding its vanishing coast, which is disappearing at a rate of about 17 square miles a year.

Ending the moratorium was welcomed by the industry.

“Finally, we got it done,” said Byron Encalade, the president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association. “It’s crucial.”

Encalade said the moratorium hindered oyster farmers hurt by freshwater diversions from developing new oyster grounds. “We couldn’t move. We were stuck with those bad leases,” he said.

Oyster farmers don’t like river diversions because fresh water kills their oysters, which they grow on state-owned water-bottoms.

“Oystermen are looking to prepare moving with the changing water conditions,” said John Tesvich, chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, a state panel that oversees the industry.

The moratorium was imposed in 2002 after a state judge ruled in favor of oyster farmers who sued the state claiming their grounds were destroyed by the Caernarvon freshwater diversion on the Mississippi River. But that ruling later was overturned by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Since then, Louisiana also has passed legislation to indemnify the state against similar suits. Thus, the state now feels it is time — and safe — to reopen the leasing program.

Cole Garrett, a lawyer for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said the oyster industry needs to be allowed to adapt to the diversions, which the state has plans to build.

Louisiana is the nation’s top oyster producer. About 12.7 million pounds of oysters were produced in Louisiana in 2014, and the industry is valued at $317 million, employing about 3,500 people, according to state and federal figures.

Harvesters grow oysters on water-bottoms leased from the state for $3 an acre. There are about 402,600 acres leased to oyster farmers.

New leases are not expected to become available until 2018 as the state drafts rules for the new program, according to Tesvich.

In the meantime, the state plans to allow farmers to renew leases that were canceled due to river diversions and expand existing leases.