Fishermen pull up dead and dying oysters in areas affected by the Bonnet Carre Spillway opening

Spillway opening adversely impacts oyster industry

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Ryan Guerra drags an oyster dredge along a lease 40 miles east of the Bonnet Carre Spillway in St. Bernard Parish.

He finds the vast majority of his oysters are dead.

The few that’s alive right now, they’re dying in the shell," said the 43-year-old Guerra, who has been fishing these waters for a quarter of a century.

“Usually, you can take an oyster and do like that," said Guerra, shaking an oyster. "It’s going to stay in the shell, but with it being rotten like that, it’s coming out easy.”

Guerra shows what appears to be Mississippi River mud within the shell of an oyster.

“I guess they can’t filter the mud that’s coming, the sand and the fresh water and that’s what kills them.”

The spillway, which has operated two separate times this year for a combined total of roughly three months, is not the only source of fresh water on the east bank of the Mississippi River.

Fishermen in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes had already complained about various cuts, both man-made and natural, that have made Breton Sound more fresh.

Guerra worries the effects could last much longer than a single season since fishermen seed their beds to promote the growth of oysters, essentially producing multiple crops.

Oyster mortality ranged from 14% to 100% on public reefs in St. Bernard Parish, according to data the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries released on June 6.

However, the report also showed other species are being affected, including areas near the Atchafalaya River.

The Vermilion/Atchafalaya basin shows an 85% decrease in white shrimp numbers during the most recent biological sampling, according to the state report.

Brown shrimp catches fell 66% in the basin.

LDWF biological sampling of blue crab in April was 60% below the long-term average in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin and 45 percent below the statewide average.

The Bonnet Carre, 30 miles upriver from New Orleans, is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to divert river water into Lake Pontchartain and prevent disaster downstream.

While flooding New Orleans is not an option, critics insist that the technology and methods involved in the spillway’s use are outdated.

Congress approved construction of the spillway in 1928 following the disastrous flooding in the Mississippi River valley a year earlier.

Even before this year’s flood season, the Corps said it was involved in a two-year assessment of changes in the Mississippi and the various tools it uses to manage the river.

While Guerra says his oysters are not marketable, restaurants have found a supply in areas west of the Mississippi River.

Four generations of his family have worked these waters, but Ryan Guerra steers his 14-year-old son away from the family business.

“My son, I do not want to take him on the boat. I don’t want him to learn this business. It’s going to the dogs.”

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