The Case of the Missing Mollusks

by Lou Dolinar

Back in July, 2010, as the Deepwater crisis was reaching a crescendo, the Associated Press broke a startling story: Freshwater diverted from the Mississippi river into Louisiana wetlands, ordered by Gov. Bobby Jindal to push oil away from the swamps, was destroying the state’s oyster industry. On the anniversary of the well blow-out, the controversy has taken on new life amid new media malpractice.

Oysters prefer salt water, though they can tolerate brackish to fresh for a while. The diversions, however, diluted the salt water and proved to be too much for the tasty bivalves. By some estimates, the state has lost up to half of its oyster fishery, the largest in the U.S, for three years or more.

The governor had broad support for his plan, both from environmentalists and local coastal scientists. Keeping oil out of the marshes was obviously a good idea, although it’s disputed whether Unified Command, e.g. the Coast Guard and BP, approved of the untested technique.

The enviro crowd, normally Jindal-haters, didn’t object because oysters don’t belong where they are cultivated, in what should be brackish or freshwater marshes. They can grown there because of excessive saltwater infiltration brought on by unnatural processes that diversions reverse (see our home page piece on channelization). Just to complicate the politics a bit, the state for decades had leased these oyster beds to specific oyster harvesters, many of them family businesses. Artificial oyster reefs account for up to half of Louisiana’s oyster fishery, which employs about 6,000 people and is valued at $330 million.

The issue was hashed out thoroughly in the national media, then faded away against widespread hysteria about the potential for far more destructive consequences of the spill, which effectively ended on Aug. 4 with the so-called static kill.

Fast forward to this past week. Oh, how quickly they forget! A year later and unable to point to a single major environmental consequence of the spill, the national media are desperately dredging up dead oysters — and implying that oil was to blame.

Hang your head in shame, Time Magazine (My boldface):

The Gulf’s valuable fisheries also seem to have escaped the worst damage. John W. Tunnell Jr., the associate director of the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M, estimated in a report that the region’s shrimp fisheries would rebound to normal within two years, while blue-crab populations would be back to normal this year and commercial fish species such as red snapper and grouper largely escaped any negative impact. (Oyster beds, hit hard by the oil, might take up to a decade to recover, however.)

That’s just wrong.

CBS lies by implication:

Business, Strassmann observes, has died for some in the Gulf, such as New Orleans oyster wholesaler Al Sunseri, who showed Strassmann a nearly empty cooler Sunseri says “would typically be full of sacks of oysters … big, 100-pound sacks.”

On Greenwire at the New York Times, we had a lede that is totally bogus, though technically accurate:

POINTE A LA HACHE, La. — On a bright spring day last week at the Pointe a la Hache harbor, Pablo Cervantes was working on his boat.

There wasn’t a whole lot else to do.

Thanks to the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico last April 20, the oyster population that Cervantes relies upon is now decimated.

The Times carefully buried the freshwater diversions at the bottom of the story, two screens later. Fresh water, oil, whatever, it’s all the same thing, a tragedy for which evil BP is responsible.

You might forgive these as minor editorial lapses, except that in recent weeks, there’s been a real controversy over the missing mollusks. #more#BP has been needling Governor Jindal over his disaster-management skills and says it won’t pay to restock the defunct oyster beds. The governor is running for reelection and BP’s picking at the scab of the controversy isn’t helpful right now. Is BP looking for revenge on its greatest critic? As a long-time BP watcher, I can tell you that company spokesmen were not this nasty in public during the course of the spill. According to the New Orleans Times Picayune website:

State officials’ decision to turn on a number of freshwater diversions full blast to block oil from entering coastal wetlands on both sides of the Mississippi River–a strategy that decimated private and public oyster beds–was not approved by the Unified Command overseeing the response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a senior BP official said Friday.

“Having been a part of this response since the beginning, I can tell you categorically that the Coast Guard indicated that it was not necessary and was not seen as a viable response technique,” Mike Utsler, chief operating officer of BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, said Friday. “As a Unified Command, we saw this as a not-needed exercise, and the state still chose to pursue that course of action.”

Utsler said that’s one reason why BP has so far refused to pay to restore oyster beds with cultch, the shell material on which oyster eggs attach and grow in the spring and fall.

A second reason, Utsler said, is research released this week by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists that he said showed that oysters process and expel oil contaminants so quickly that they would not have been hurt by the spill.

“I can only quote the fact that there’s an article this week by NOAA … that there’s no evidence that oysters have been tainted by or retained any residual oil. And that’s testing not only by NOAA, but it was by FDA, EPA and the five states that all participated,” he said.

The governor’s response is that he did have approval for his initiative. The continuing argument appears to be about roughly $15 million in payments, small beer vs. the $16 billion remaining in BP’s reserve fund. And BP’s attack seems gratuitous, since the oystermen may be paid anyway, according to an astute reporter at the Louisiana Record:

Not mentioned by either party was Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) administer Ken Feinberg’s announcement in early February that oyster harvesters will receive double their 2010 losses, and that they’ll receive damages for oyster beds killed when fresh water was diverted to fight the spill.

So the media’s accusing BP of killing the oysters, BP is accusing Governor Jindal of killing the oysters, politics is wrapped up in the mess, and the guys who got the raw deal may or may not be made whole. Isn’t that a more interesting story? Couldn’t we be spared the angst and just get the facts?