West Pointe a la Hache to Homeplace (Over the Bridge)
We came at Empire, Louisiana from the back side, driving from Patty’s Place B&B in Buras, Louisiana up Highway 11 and taking Rose Marie Drive through the shipyard right to Delta Marina. In the bait shop we asked for Mitch Jurisich, and the “Oyster King” as Albertine had called him came down to greet us. Mitch is part of a long-running Croatian history in these parts of Louisiana, in the oyster fishing parts in particular.
His grandfather came from Yugoslavia (now Croatia) as an immigrant to work in oyster farms—he’d heard about how great America was, so he came to work oysters, to work hard, and he enjoyed it. After some time of earning his fifty cents a week, he had saved enough to afford his first oyster lease as well as go back to Yugoslavia and find a wife to bring back to America. Together they lived at a camp in the bayous until they had two children and decided to buy a little piece of ground in Empire and build a house—the bayou was no place to raise the children, according to Mitch.
This was the 1920’s or so, and a ripe time to be in a growing oyster industry. The Jurisich family flourished, eventually leading to Mitch’s current position as Chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force as well as he and his family holding leases in all the oyster-growing parishes in the state.
Mitch and his brother now run the business which includes the next generation as well, Mitch’s son and nephew. They are on the boat doing the harvesting, and Mitch and his brother do the marking. They have to keep their oyster leases marked, because as Mitch says, “water is not like land where you can have a tree line… we have to actually mark our boundaries.” They use a lot of bamboo because it grows fast and stands up to the bayou water. Of course Mitch used to do it all, the harvesting, the marking, and the political work, but he’s excited to be passing it down to his son and potentially his grandson as well, the fifth generation.
Besides the family being on staff, the Jurisich’s contract with at least forty to fifty families that work their leases on a share. Mitch explains, “share cropping, you know, they use their own boats, they use their own labor, they use their own gas, they work on a percentage, you know. We get a percentage, they get their percentage, take care, take home with them, and it works out great because when I tell people, you know, I have fifty families working for me, that’s not just fifty people, that’s fifty families….”
By some estimates, Louisiana Seafood is one of the top five industries in the state of Louisiana. Each boat’s going to have two to four people, multiply that by Mitch’s fifty families, and you’ve got two hundred people making a living on the waters, just off the Jurisich family business. Those are direct contractors, but you also have to take into account the people that harvest the bamboo, the employees at the offloading docks, the truck drivers, the thirty to fifty employees at the processing plants, and the distributers as well.
Mitch the politician comes to the fore, saying, “you know this industry is not just what you pulling out the water. It’s what’s beyond the water, and when you look at man trying to take that away from us, you not just taking it from us. You taking it from a lot of people, and that’s the message we’re trying to get across about these diversions, about, you know, there’s other ways to try to build land without destroying our seafood.”
Diversions. One of the hottest topics in Plaquemines, and definitely for the oyster industry.
Backing up just a bit, because this is where the river comes in, we need a lesson in oyster production. Mitch and all the oyster farmers in Louisiana depend heavily on the estuary formed by the Mississippi River Delta. According to mississippiriver.org, “Estuaries are bodies of water, as well the surrounding coastal wetlands, that are generally found where a river meets the sea, …and the most influential gradient in estuaries is salinity because many plants and animals require certain salinity levels to survive, reproduce or thrive. For plants, animals, and humans alike, living in or near an estuary can be very rewarding, because estuaries are highly productive ecosystems. They can also be physically stressful and require a certain level of adaptiveness, as salinities, water levels, and sediment loads change.”
Down in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, Mitch tells us, the river provides the perfect mix for the estuary. In the spring the floods come, and the river usually raises its back up against the levees. It backs up into the bays and bayous where the oysters grow, lowering the salinities to levels that will help get rid of any predators that may have established themselves on the oysters. Then, as summer comes and the water levels fall back down, the brackish mix of the water resolves itself. With higher salinities, the oysters spawn and the larvae swim around for several days and adhere to the hard substrate, the oyster bed. The right salinity balance is what holds the eggs in the water column, floating around until they spawn. If the water is too fresh, and thus less buoyant, the oyster larvae will fall too quickly to the reef and die.
This is what happened this year due to the extremely high river persisting into the summer and fall seasons. “The river’s our friend, the river’s our foe,” Mitch capitulates. “But the one thing about the river in its natural state, it’s gonna do this to us every now—and it’s gonna wipe us out, it’s gonna come through and it’s gonna, like this year’s just been a devastating year to our fisheries, mainly oysters, we lost a lot of product this year, a lot of market size…. It set us back now. We gonna be on a two year, two to three year come back, but we know when Mother Nature does her thing, she usually gives back ten fold. So we’re not worried about that.”
What Mitch is worried about is “man” coming in and deciding to disrupt the flow of the river with diversions. He feels it totally messes up the natural way of life for the estuary’s seafood and ecosystem. In Mitch’s opinion, the Mississippi River has created the greatest estuary in the world. With pride he claims, “I’ll take what we have and take on the world with it!” And yet he does backtrack a bit, to say that the estuary was truly in its prime before 2012 when a crevasse breeched a bank of the river increasing the flow of fresh water into the marsh and killing the public seed lands on the East Bank of Plaquemines.
Mardi Gras day rang out as a death knell for seed oysters in 2012, affecting the entire industry in the state. Mardi Gras Pass, as they’ve named it, has remained open and the oysters have yet to return. The area has produced zero for the past seven or eight years, Mitch tells us, where they used to produce roughly $56 million dollars in oysters a year. “It’s just sad, it’s sad that we used to sit on, you know, that was the gold in the mine, you know, we used to sit on top of the best oyster area, oyster resource in the world, I’m telling you, in the world. Other states would love to have what we had, but it’s sad that our state won’t help us fix the problem, and we are constantly battling, battling the political issues involved around it because there’s a big… push right now to use sediment diversions to rebuild land.”
That is not the answer, according to Mitch Jurisich. In his view, diversions are using using millions of gallons of water to move ounces of sediment, and those millions of gallons of water are killing Louisiana seafood, killing the oysters. It could very well put the oyster industry out of business, the way Mitch tells it, but others say it’s a matter of adaptation—like the note on estuaries mentioned before. A new diversion has been proposed but not finalized for the west side of the river into Barataria Bay near Myrtle Grove, and that would change the face of Empire, or perhaps wipe what’s left of it off the map.
How to build land then, if the sediment diversions are not the answer? Mitch feels a sediment delivery system, such as suction dredging and piping the sediment to build barrier islands, is the best way out that will preserve the oyster industry as well. Not only would the dredging help to build land, he tells us, but it could clear out the other passes for the river to reach the Gulf—Baptiste Colette, Tiger Pass, Grand Pass, Main Pass, Pass a Loutre, South Pass, amongst all the other passes that feed off these.
Currently the only way out for the river is through the Southwest Pass, a narrow waterway stretching about 20 miles from Pilottown to the Pilot’s Station at the tip end. The Army Corps of Engineers continuously dredges to maintain Southwest Pass as the navigation channel for ships and really anything with an outboard motor. Only kayaks and canoes can make it down any of the other passes these days, they’re so silted in. Mitch wonders that the choking up of the Delta like this could be causing some of the backlog—the rising waters upriver in the Midwest, flooding out so many farms and families.
Mitch is a proponent of the “natural” way of the river, and to him natural means levees, dredging and navigation. To others, “natural” means letting the waters run over or even tearing the levees down. Adaptation is another term up for debate, as Mitch believes the oyster industry has adapted very well to the land loss resulting from the oil and gas industry. “As fishermen, you know, we adapt,” Mitch says. “We can e—, you know, we evolve with our, with our, with our world.… When you look over that bridge, seventy five percent used to be land with narrow bays and bayous going through. It’s gone…but that same, that very same land loss increased our oyster habitat, you know. As the lands begin to sink, we noticed that these areas were also starting to produce natural oysters, the natural growth oysters.”
The land loss also changed the way the currents ran in the bayous and bays, leaving bayous that used to have 20-30 feet of water, with solid reef bottom that they plant oysters on, leaving those bayous barely navigable. And yet, where all that land sunk to, it created new firm bottoms, ripe for natural oyster growth, he tells us.
All this loss and adaptation was born out of man coming in with the oil and gas industry. Where the oil and gas were extracted, the rock collapsed and the Delta has subsided. As Mitch explains, “we didn’t erode, see, that’s the big story when our marshes started sinking, started disappearing, It wasn’t from the banks. It was the interiors were starting to fall, and that’s very, that was very evident because the shorelines of the bays and bayous and all were still in tact but…,” he goes on, “oil and gas made Louisiana rich for a long time, so that was the trade off, you know.”
The oyster industry has indeed adapted—adapted to oil and gas, to the BP Oil Spill, to Hurricane Katrina, to unexpected diversions like Mardi Gras Pass, to recent river flood stage. Adapting to man-made sediment diversions, however, appears out of the question, at least for now, for as long as Mitch Jurisich can keep fighting it.