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In Louisiana, Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Stymies Oyster Harvest

John Lapper examines oyster for research by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Marine Fisheries and Louisiana State University
John Lapper examines oyster for research by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Marine Fisheries and Louisiana State University

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Zulima Palacio

Until the BP oil spill almost three months ago, the oyster industry in the Gulf of Mexico was the largest in the U.S, with Louisiana leading the pack.  But since then, more than half of its operations have been suspended.  And the largest oyster research project in the region is on hold, forced to move away from the slick.

This was the largest oyster research farm in the Gulf of Mexico, until the oil spill.  It is located in Grand Isle, one of the coastal areas most affected by the spill.

The research was aimed at breeding oysters that would remain fat through the summer. But because of the spill, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Marine Fisheries and Louisiana State University were forced to move most of the oysters about 500 kilometers away.

"We had about over 2000 oysters deployed in our farm and these are the result of over 10 years worth of research and we moved the oysters to Rockefeller Refuge," said Louisiana State University Professor John Supan who directs the research.  "We were just at the point where the research results were about to be commercialized."  

Oil has not been sighted at the research farm yet.   

A few weeks after the spill, BP placed booms around it, in a bid to protect the facility. But researchers were concerned about water contamination.

"I have always been more concerned about the invisible of the spill than the visible portions of the spill," added Supan.

John Lapper and Sandra Casas also work at the research farm.  They collected some of the oysters that were left behind, checked on their health, and removed offspring that didn't belong in the study.

Supan says traditionally oysters get fat in the winter, but after they spawn, they lose much of their weight.   The researchers say they found a way to keep the oysters fat in the summer.   

"We have a breeding program that would result in oysters that have a higher meat yield in it during the summer time," explained Supan.   

This oyster is only two years old.  But it's the size of a 4-year-old.  

Supan says oysters that stay fat through the summer could be an economic boon for local fisheries.

"You can produce an oyster that has a high meat yield in the summer when traditionally you can't do that," explained Supan.

The research project is mostly on hold now.  And so is Louisiana's oyster industry, the largest in the Gulf.  

"On average, Louisiana produces about 12 million pounds of shucked oyster meat a year," he noted.  "About 60 percent of our production is closed because of the threat of oil."

At LSU's campus in Baton Rouge, Professor Julie Anderson is a fishery specialist.  She is pessimistic about the long term outcome for the region's marine life.

"Most of the fish, shrimp, blue crab they are spawning out in the Gulf right now, and any of those really small larvae fish and crab, is probably going to be killed if they encounter the actual oil spill," said Anderson.  "So it could be a couple of years before we see the true impacts of the oil spill."

For the last 200 years, neither overfishing, illness or climate change stopped the oyster industry in the Gulf of Mexico.  Now, the oil spill may.

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