In hopes of revitalizing Mississippi oyster reefs, the state legislature opened up much of the Mississippi Sound’s oyster-growing seabed to private lease.
The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources currently manages and maintains most of these water floors and opens them to the public when sufficient oysters are available for harvest. Under the new law, Marine Resources will only receive about 20% of the allowable reef area for public harvest.
The shift comes after a series of natural disasters, beginning with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which decimated reefs in Mississippi Sound, where oysters settle as larvae and grow into adulthood. The reefs are ecologically important to the Mississippi Sound and once generated millions in revenue each year.
There was no harvest on public reefs that Marine Resources has maintained since 2018 because oysters are too scarce. Fishermen say the state’s recovery efforts have fallen short with more than $55 million spent since 2005. A recent investigation by ProPublica and the Sun Herald showed that the state was remodeling reefs in ways that were unresponsive to changing conditions.
“My hope is that the problems with water quality and habitats in the Sound will gradually be addressed,” said Sen. Mike Thompson of Pass Christian, who authored the bill. He also hopes that “private industry will be able to fill in these reefs in a way that’s economically viable for them, but for the rest of us in a way that improves the overall health of the Mississippi Sound.”
Poplarville Rep. Timmy Ladner worked in the House of Representatives to get the bill passed and believes it is “a step in the right direction.” He said lawmakers have been talking to fishermen and processors about what needs to be included in the law.
Oyster boats once lined the docks in Hancock County but are rare these days. Hannah Ruhoff/Sun Herald
How oyster leasing will work in Mississippi Sound
DMR, which has campaigned for more private reef leasing, says it doesn’t have the money or manpower to conserve more than 8,112 acres of public reefs in today’s climate.
Mississippi previously had a lease program, but most leases were inactive. The new law gives oyster farmers more time to build reefs, with 15-year leases as opposed to the current five-year leases. Tenants also have a first extension right on their water floors. The law also requires farmers to edit their leases or risk losing them.
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DMR will be responsible for the leasing program. Individuals and companies can lease up to 2,500 acres of water in the Sound for oyster farming.
The law also lowers the lease rate from $5 to $3 per acre, with the money going into a Marine Resources account for oyster projects.
The state has a total of more than 24,000 acres licensed for growing oysters. But oysters cannot grow in mud, and the shells or rocks in which they will grow must be planted on solid ground. Potential tenants compete for the best spots.
Leases will be available to Mississippi residents and businesses on a first come basis. The law comes into force immediately after signing, but DMR has to make arrangements for the leases.
According to Thompson, Marine Resources has already established leases where it will maintain control and maintain established reefs.
The law requires Marine Resources to display maps on its website showing leased and leased seabeds.
The law also establishes a process for DMR to enter and enforce the leases.
Crystal Seas Seafood workers in Pass Christian unload bags of oysters harvested from one of the company’s private leases in Louisiana. The company has relied more on its leased property because Mississippi hasn’t opened its public reefs for harvesting since 2018. Hannah Ruhoff/Sun Herald
Private leasing for oyster farms in Louisiana
Marine Resources executive director Joe Spraggins did not respond to Sun Herald requests for comment. But Thompson said the lease program will take effect once the governor signs the bill, which should be out in the next five days. He said Marine Resources should be running the program in “a short period of time” because they had known about the plans for several months.
The state has traditionally backfilled the reefs that form oysters with fresh shell or limestone. But farmers are putting more labor into their reefs, planting clams or rocks and periodically raking or turning the material so oyster larvae have a clean surface to settle on.
According to Thompson, Marine Resources has already identified leasehold areas that it will retain control of, and those locations include solid water floors where oysters will grow.
Private leasing has proven its worth in Louisiana, where fishermen are catching oysters on leases affected by the same disasters that Mississippi Sound suffered.
Repeated freshwater flooding from the Mississippi River has killed the oysters and Mississippi reefs have yet to recover. Louisiana officials say their public reefs, hit by flooding, are also suffering.
Ryan Bradley of the non-profit organization Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United expects a lot of interest in leasing. He hopes Marine Resources will be transparent in setting up the lease program by notifying the public that it is available and posting information on its website.
Oyster biologist Eric Powell, center, has been monitoring the growth of oysters on Mississippi reefs. Hannah Ruhoff/Sun Herald