John Tesvich is a fourth-generation oyster farmer in Empire, a tiny Gulf Coast enclave south of New Orleans. He's spent his life working in the rich oyster beds here, the most productive in the nation, and has weathered his share of storms: During Hurricane Katrina, his house ended up under 17 feet of water. But last week, as he navigated his 40-foot oyster boat out into open water, he admitted that the turmoil this region has faced in the last decade was beginning to wear him down.
"A lot has changed over the years," he said. "It seems like one crisis after another sometimes."
One crisis was particularly damaging to Tesvich's industry: The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The fourth anniversary of the busted undersea well's sealing (after it gushed crude into the Gulf for nearly five months) is coming up next week, and Tesvich, who also chairs the oyster industry's main statewide lobbying group, says his crop is still struggling to rebound.
On the day last week when I visited, Tesvich piloted his boat, the "Croation Pride," through a forest of white PVC stakes sticking up from the water that demarcate the boundaries of different oyster beds. There's a complex network of ownership here, where individual oystermen lease sections of publicly-owned "waterbottom" on which to build artificial reefs and grow oysters. Many of these reefs are seeded with infant oysters harvested from nearby public reefs that act as a kind of village green—some small-scale oystermen depend entirely on the public reefs for their harvest, Tesvich says.
Since the spill, he says, "the availability of seed on the public reefs is almost nonexistant."
The water in this delta, nestled between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, is warm and brackish, ideal for growing oysters. Immediately following the BP spill, that changed. State officials, desperate to keep the gushing oil from pushing upstream into highly sensitive estuaries, opened the flood gates on the river, unleashing a torrent of freshwater to push the oil back out to sea. The tactic largely worked, but at the cost of a whole season of oysters, which have limited tolerance for freshwater.
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