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Oyster Growers Say Post-Spill Assistance Is Inadequate

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(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the April 25, 2011 edition.)

African American oystermen in Louisiana's lower Plaquemines Parish, where beds are damaged, are a tenacious bunch and don't intend to abandon their livelihoods and seek work elsewhere if they can help it. After a disastrous year since the spill, they're getting assistance from the state but want BP to live up to a commitment to restore beds. And they hope that Gulf Coast Claims Facility paymaster Ken Feinberg will compensate them fairly for losses.

"Oyster beds on the east bank of lower Plaquemines were decimated by the opening of the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion" on the Mississippi River, said Telley Madina, executive director of the Louisiana Oystermen Association based in Pointe a la Hache. He spoke at an April 19 panel on the coast sponsored by the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

Last May, the state opened the Caernarvon Diversion -- located 15 miles below New Orleans on the east bank near Braithwaite at the St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish border -- at full capacity to keep oil from the west bank and surrounding areas. Fresh water from the river, however, reduced salinity in oyster habitats, with deadly consequences.

Madina said that his father in law, Byron Encalade -- president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association -- expects to harvest nothing this year from the waters around Pointe a la Hache, where Encalade lives. Oysters there died from the intrusion of fresh water. He said "most of the population on the east bank of lower Plaquemines is minority African American, and many families have been surviving off the water there for generations."

In addition to killing oysters, fresh water diversions didn't always keep oil at bay. "The Caernarvon opening was intended to suppress oil, but oil still got into both the west and east banks, including Spanish Bay," an oyster area east of the river in Plaquemines, Madina said. Some private beds on the east bank in lower Plaquemines survived oil and the diversion's opening, however.

Madina said "we're estimating that it will take five years for most east bank beds to recover, partly because it took five years for them to come back strong after Katrina. They had just gotten full grown when the oil spill happened." Other predictions are that recovery will take 3 to 5 years, or 5 to 10 years, he said.

"The diversions were done for the good of the state because of the spill, to keep oil from the west bank and from coming into Spanish Bay on the east bank -- although it eventually did," Madina said. "BP should help the state recoup losses but has already said it doesn't want to pay for oyster damage from diversions."

Olivia Watkins, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries, said last week "we had a $15 million, verbal commitment for oyster restoration from BP last fall, but they're trying to back out of it now. In Louisiana, a verbal commitment and a handshake are as good as a promise."

Watkins pointed to the high mortality of oysters along Louisiana's coast as a result of the oil spill and spill-response actions. "The oyster industry can't wait for the federal NRDA process--which can take five to ten years to complete--to begin restoration," she said. Louisiana and other Gulf states are to be returned to pre-spill conditions through a Natural Resource Damage Assessment or NRDA. Scientists involved in the NRDA continue to collect data in the Gulf, and restoration ideas are being sought.

Watkins said "we can't sit back and do nothing" about the beds. The state took action this month, and announced two, $2 million allocations, or a total of $4 million, in emergency funding for cultch planting on public oyster seed grounds on the Mississippi River's east bank. Cultch, mostly shells and limestone, is used to provide bedding where young oysters, called spat, attach and grow. Louisiana oysters spawn in the spring and in late August or September. Watkins said the state will ask BP to compensate it for the $4 million in cultch spending.

She said "we already have permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Lake Borgne cultch planting." And at the request of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, "we will be applying for a permit for Black Bay in Plaquemines Parish so that planting can get started there in time for the fall spat set."

Curtis Thomas, Louisiana-based spokesman for BP's Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, said last week that BP intends to fulfill its environmental and economic commitments to the Gulf, and added "BP knows the NRDA process will resolve many issues that remain through and even after this unprecedented response" to the spill. Thomas continued, saying "with respect to the oyster beds, alleged damage to them caused by the state of Louisiana's fresh water diversion, which may have reduced water salinity, is not compensable under the Oil Pollution Act -- that is, BP is not obligated to pay for such damage because it was not caused by the oil spill."

He also said "some, senior Gulf state regulatory officials are reporting that damage to oyster beds in 2010 was not caused by the spill or the fresh water diversion; rather it was caused by increased water temperature and lower levels of dissolved oxygen." He did not explain who those state regulatory officials were or what locations they had referred to.

BP will provide $1 billion for early, restoration projects in the Gulf for damage to natural resources caused by the spill, NRDA trustees said last week. The trustees include Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas, the U.S. Dept. of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The trustees said they plan to use the money for rebuilding coastal marshes, replenishing damaged beaches, conserving ocean habitat for injured wildlife, and restoring barrier islands and wetlands.

Meanwhile, fishermen are getting the short end of the stick from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, Madina said. "Less than 10% of GCCF payments have gone to Gulf fishermen, shrimpers and oystermen, who so far have been compensated for only a fraction of their losses." He had heard that some workers in seafood restaurants in New Orleans had been fully paid on their GCCF claims. "These groups of people shouldn't be pitted against each other, but GCCF should first help the people affected on the coast, like fishermen," he said.

Madina continued, saying "I don't think problems on the coast will wrap up in 2012 as Ken Feinberg says. We're still seeing big tar balls wash ashore in lower Plaquemines, and I won't be surprised if we have more, enormous fish kills, like we did last September."

Madina knows oystermen in lower Plaquemines who are taking $5,000 final, individual payments from the GCCF and signing away their rights to sue BP because they can't wait any longer for money. "For shrimpers, the season is starting and they need cash to get their boats ready," he said. "Fisheries are a $2.4 billion industry statewide, and it is just about the only industry on the east bank of lower Plaquemines."

Madina said "oystermen need money to pay their mortgage or rent. You can't survive these days floating up and down the river on a boat."

Under a new initiative, oyster shells from participating New Orleans restaurants will be collected to rebuild oyster beds in Louisiana, said Mandi Thompson, executive director of the Gulf Coast Leadership Forum, speaking at that group's conference in the Crescent City last week.