How baby oysters in Mississippi survived this year’s influx of fresh water

New oyster farmers nickname their first crop “the travelers” after an unexpected journey

The Travelers Sweeps

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) -- Mike Arguelles dips a measurement tool into the sound near Deer Island off Biloxi to gauge the salinity of the waters.

"26 parts per thousand," he announced. "Customers are going to love these."

After they signed up for a Mississippi state program, Arguelles and his wife Anita formed French Hermit Oysters to grow oysters using a method new to Mississippi state waters.

Until now, Mississippi oystermen mostly worked waters to the West closer to the state line with Louisiana.

Oysters will not grow naturally near Deer Island, because they would smother in the sandy bottom.

However, these waters offer a Goldilocks zone when it comes to salinity, producing a slightly saltier-tasting oyster which many chefs crave, Arguelles said.

"We consider ourselves farmers," Anita Arguelles said.

The pair signed up for the program, offered by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, to learn about growing oysters off the bottom and just below the surface in specially-made floating cages.

While the farmers must buy their own oyster seed and equipment, the initial training is paid for through fines associated with the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

As they tend the cages, separating the oysters to allow them more room to grow, Mike Arguelles said the crop tends to grow more quickly.

While oysters generally take 2-3 years to grow to market size, French Hermit Oysters has grown its first crops in a fraction of the time.

"If you sell an oyster in 7-8 months, then you've got a better chance of getting in the black," Mike Arguelles said.

With the first crop coming in last spring, things look promising.

"We were finally going to make a little money that we could reinvest back into the farm."

Last May, with tens of thousands of oysters flourishing in their cages, Anita was on the road to meet with chefs.

"They were excited about our oysters and then, wham, got a phone call on that trip that said our oysters are all dead."

The culprit was fresh water from the Bonnet Carre Spillway, which initially looked as if it had wiped out the harvest.

To prevent flooding in New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had operated the spillway twice for the first time in its history and well into oyster season.

"It killed a lot of the oysters on the natural oyster reefs and it killed our oysters that were mature and ready for harvest," Anita said.

However, it turned out there were some survivors, including half-dime sized baby oysters that soak in less water than larger oysters.

"Fortunately, we were able to take our little tiny oysters, our baby oysters, over to Bayou La Batre," Anita said.

Mississippi state regulators are working with oyster growers in Alabama to find a safe haven for the oysters got special permission to cross state lines.

"One of the reasons they were able to cross state lines is they were sub-market oysters," said Jason Rider, who runs the program for the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

“They were below one inch," Rider said.

Anita and Mike nicknamed the young oysters "the travelers."

Mike gathered up 50,000 of their oyster by boat to the dock then rode along the I-10 system to Bayou La Batre to meet another boat ride to saltier waters 31 miles east of their lease in Mississippi.

Anita estimated all of the farmers together sent about 500,000 oysters on the journey to Alabama, where they were tended a few times a week.

After three months, they made the return trip to Mississippi.

On a chilly Sunday morning earlier this month, they harvested the first of the travelers and a smaller number of older oysters that survived.

Costs would have prohibited moving the oysters had they been much larger Nike said.

"This year, we were lucky because they were little," Mike said.

So far, Anita estimated they have harvested about 10,000 of the oysters.

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