Friday, November 12, 2010

Oyster catch is coming in slowly


PASS CHRISTIAN — Local fishermen and seafood wholesalers promise there will be plenty of oysters for the inaugural Pass Christian Oyster Festival this weekend, despite the huge challenges they are facing.

Normal for October is up to 75 boats a day bringing thousands of burlap sacks of oysters to the Pass Christian Harbor, said Darlene Kimball with Kimball Seafood. “This year we didn’t even work in October,” she said. By Thursday of opening week, she hadn’t yet unloaded 100 bags a day.

“It’s hard to make a living today with only this amount coming in,” she said.

The oyster season opened Monday for tonging only, with no dredging, to conserve the oysters in Mississippi waters. On Wednesday a wastewater discharge forced the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources to close the St. Stanislaus and Waveland oyster reefs in Area II B, off the coast of Hancock County. Kimball said 90 percent of her business is from oysters and she is doing everything she can to get fishermen back to work. Some have their names on a waiting list to get tongs made so they can catch oysters. Others have dredging boats that aren’t suitable for tonging and not everyone who goes out comes back with bags of oysters. “It’s hit and miss out there,” she said.

When DMR took fishermen out to the reefs off Pass Christian Harbor in early September, 80-90 percent of the oysters were dead. The officials stopped short of blaming the Gulf oil spill or the dispersants used to break up the oil.

Fishermen returning to the docks Thursday said they were finding oysters and most brought in their 10-bag limit.Albert Ellis of Pass Christian started about 7:30 a.m. and caught his limit by 1 p.m. He gets about $30 a bag, and the $300 pays for his gasoline, his helper and himself.

“We have nothing else to do,” said Ellis, a third-generation fisherman.Kimball said some of the Alabama reefs are closing and that will bring more out-of-state fishermen to Mississippi. George Anderson of Baldwin County said the oystering was much better in Mississippi water Thursday than he had seen in Alabama.

There were plenty of oysters but they were full of mussels, said Phil Rodrigue of Ocean Springs. He and Paul Pavlov scraped off the mussels and had a bucket of clean oysters they planned to cook that night. Rodrigue said he is one of about three fishermen who have recreational oystering licenses in Mississippi and he believes the commercial fishermen are collecting a check from BP rather than tonging, which is harder than dredging. BP treated her “very unfairly,” said Kimball. “I’m sucking it up and getting back to work. I want my normal life back.”

Government officials and fishermen replenished the oyster reefs after Hurricane Katrina. She isn’t sure the oysters will recover after the oil spill. “I’m praying it gets better,” she said. “I don’t see it coming back like before.”

One of the biggest challenges for the Gulf seafood industry is public perception, and Kimball said Thanksgiving will tell if people are comfortable using oysters in dressing, soup and gumbo.

“We’ve got to prove to people our products are safe,” she said. Alderwoman Renee Brooks is betting there will be plenty of people in town this weekend eating seafood. She helped organize the Pass Christian Oyster Festival to celebrate the city’s French heritage and emphasize the importance of seafood to the town.

“Almost every business in Pass Christian is impacted by seafood,” she said. Kimball Seafood, Crystal Seafood and other suppliers and restaurants in town will be preparing all kinds of oyster dishes along with shrimp, crawfish and alligator during the VIP celebration tonight at the harbor and the festival Saturday and Sunday.

“We love our oysters in Pass Christian,” she said.

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