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Oyster Beds Still Empty Four Years After Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Gulf communities and wildlife still reeling from the damage, but BP ends cleanup efforts

Four years ago, on April 20, 2010, the United States suffered the greatest oil spill in American history. With the explosion of a British Petroleum (BP) offshore oil rig, five million barrels (roughly 206 million gallons) of oil were released from the Deepwater Horizon oil well into the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven rig workers lost their lives, and immeasurable damage was wrought on coastal communities and wildlife.

photo of oyster shells in a huge stackphoto by faungg on Flickr

Four years later, many Gulf communities are still coping with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and scientists are still struggling to understand the long-term impacts of the spill on birds, marine mammals, fish, and aquatic invertebrates. At least one long-term impact is as clear as day: the ongoing devastation to the Louisiana oyster industry.

“Every day is touch and go,” says Al Sunseri, president of New Orleans-based P & J Oyster Company. “I never would have thought that four years later things would be as challenged as they are right now. I’ve seen hurricanes, and other challenging times [like] fresh water from very high rivers, and a number of different things, and this is like no other disaster that we’ve had affect our business. This is an unnatural disaster.”

Historically, Louisiana has led the country in oyster production; in an average year the state supplies roughly one-third of all oysters throughout the United States. In 2009, the year before the spill, Louisiana produced 14 million pounds of oyster meat. Since the spill, things have changed dramatically. Although Louisiana continues to be a leading oyster producer, oyster production dropped by half in 2010, to 6.8 million pounds. And according to a recent study by the National Wildlife Federation, when compared to other Gulf states, Louisiana’s oysters have experienced especially high mortality and low spat recruitment since the spill.   

Aside from overall ecosystem harm, the spilled oil directly affected oysters in at least two ways. According to a recently released federal report, Gulf oysters – as well as oyster eggs, sperm and larvae – were exposed to oil and oil dispersants following the spill, which can cause death and impair reproduction. Oysters, which require brackish water to survive, also took a huge blow from the immediate post-spill responses. Following the spill, large volumes of water were released from the Mississippi River to decrease oil infiltration into shoreline areas. The freshwater releases caused low salinity conditions in oyster habitat and killed huge numbers of Gulf oysters.

These losses have been devastating for the local oyster industry. P&J Oyster Company is the oldest continuously operating oyster business in the United States, now in its 138th year, but business has been difficult ever since the spill. “We are still not shucking to this day, because I can’t get enough oysters,” Sunseri said. “The impact is huge. We used to process nearly 100 percent of our own oysters from about five farming families. And most of those farming families I dealt with do not have enough oysters to sell them to me.”

The backbone of the Louisiana oyster industry is its public oyster grounds. The grounds are maintained by the state, and licensed fishermen can gather oysters for transplant and harvest oysters from the public reefs.

Since the Deepwater Horizon spill, NOAA has overseen a $15 million restoration project to assist Louisiana oyster grounds. But, according to Sunseri, the effort has been largely unsuccessful. “The public oyster grounds are open, there is just nothing there,” he said. “[The oysters] just die before they get to market size or before they get to transplant size.”

Despite the ongoing devastation to Gulf communities, local economies, and wildlife, last week BP announced the end of its formal cleanup efforts. “It is absolutely, positively wrong,” Sunseri said when asked about the announcement. “They should be ashamed of themselves. It is irresponsible, and in my opinion, criminal.”

Zoe Loftus-Farren
Zoe Loftus-Farren is is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal. She holds a J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and and writes about climate change, environmental justice, and food policy. Follow her on Twitter @ZoeLoftusFarren

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