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Mississippi’s New Leasing Program Empowers Businesses and Individuals to Boost Oyster Production

In a bid to fortify the oyster industry and enhance its resilience against natural disasters, Mississippi has rolled out an innovative leasing program that hands over the reins of oyster reef production and maintenance to businesses and individuals. This forward-thinking initiative aims to address the challenges faced by oyster producers and foster growth in this vital seafood sector.

The Vulnerability of Oyster Production

Mike Arguelles, Co-Owner of French Hermit Oyster Co., highlights the vulnerability of oyster production to natural disasters like hurricanes. Events such as Hurricane Ida and Hurricane Zeta have wreaked havoc on oyster production in the region. Arguelles operates his oyster farm, located five miles off the Gulf Coast, with 32 cages. However, relying solely on cage-based production is insufficient to meet the demands of the seafood industry.

To address this challenge, Arguelles is exploring the possibility of establishing his own oyster reefs on the ocean floor. For this endeavor to succeed, the seabed must be suitable, providing a firm foundation to prevent oysters from sinking. Identifying such areas that are ideal for reef creation is a critical aspect of this initiative.

A Game-Changing Leasing Program

The opportunity to create oyster reefs on the ocean floor is made possible by Mississippi’s new leasing program. Joe Spraggins, Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, explains that this program is designed to stimulate oyster production. It empowers both businesses and individuals to establish oyster reefs in areas that were previously restricted.

Spraggins emphasizes the resource limitations faced by the state in terms of cultching (the process of providing material, like shells, for oyster larvae to attach to) and maintaining the vast oyster-growing areas. By permitting private entities to lease approximately 80% of these areas, the initiative aims to replenish oyster populations more efficiently.

A Boost for Disaster Resilience

In the event of a disaster, such as a hurricane, private individuals are better positioned to relocate oysters quickly. This flexibility enhances the industry’s ability to recover swiftly from such calamities, safeguarding the livelihoods of those involved.

An Industry on the Rise

The statistics reflect the potential impact of this leasing program on Mississippi’s oyster industry. According to Mississippi State University, oyster sales by Mississippi farmers in 2021 amounted to 213,772, a notable decrease from the 512,651 sold in 2020. This dip underscores the need for initiatives like the leasing program to revitalize and expand oyster production.

Mike Arguelles expresses optimism about the state’s efforts to bolster on-bottom lease initiatives, recognizing the potential to increase oyster production through this innovative approach.

Monitoring Progress

The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources is committed to overseeing the areas leased through the program. This vigilance ensures that the initiative’s objectives are met while safeguarding the delicate ecosystem of the Gulf Coast.

As of September 11th, the department has received 80 applications for the leasing program, demonstrating significant interest and potential for growth in the oyster industry. While the exact locations for leasing have yet to be allocated, the program marks a promising step forward in the revitalization and expansion of Mississippi’s oyster production.

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