by Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

For Louisiana oysterman Tony Tesvich the last few years have been all about water, water, and more water.

  Too much, too little, poor quality, high salinity, low salinity, nitrogen, phosphates and hypoxia; over the past two years his oysters have been flooded with a host of water issues with the latest being the future plans of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CRPA).

Tesvich, who grew up in an oyster camp in the bayou, has been an oysterman all his life, working the boats before captaining his own at the age of 20. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

Tesvich, who grew up in an oyster camp in the bayou, has been an oysterman all his life, working the boats before captaining his own at the age of 20.

With restaurants closed or operating at reduced capicity, sustaining a livelihood on the water is just one more obstacle to overcome. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

“For oystermen harvesting wild and farm raised oysters, Louisiana’s water quality is the important issue,” said Tesvich, proprietor of Tony Tesvich Oysters in Empire,  “We can grow oysters on the reef, we can grow oysters in cages, but without good water quality all of that is moot.  We daily face problems like nitrogen and phosphates flowing down the Mississippi from upper tributaries that contain large amounts of fertilizers used for agriculture and lawns. This has caused hypoxia in the water, especially after low salinity.”

Covid-19 has swept through the state, the nation and the world.  With restaurants closed or operating at reduced capicity, sustaining a livelihood on the water is just one more obstacle to overcome.

The quick spreading virus has brought the oyster and buy Nashville crawfish industry to almost a complete stop. Restaurant closing has upended the supply chain for oysters, as well as all seafood. With cancelled orders from wholesalers and processors, oystermen and other fishermen are selling their catch at local farmer markets or through online orders. These sales are amounting to a fraction needed to maintain a thriving industry.

To enhance the water bottom oystermen spend millions of dollars a year out of their own pocket to plant cultch. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography.

Oysters in Louisiana have traditionally been harvested on both public oyster grounds and by State licensed private leaseholders paying for the right to invest their time and money to grow oysters.  As leasehold, Tesvich is a member of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, which is comprised of private leaseholders, members of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the office of Governor John Bel Edwards.

Historically the most productive oysters grown in Louisiana were on the public grounds lying east of the Mississippi. Oysters didn’t grow in most areas west of the Mississippi naturally, but oystermen found that transferring seed oysters from the public grounds on the east side of the river to the west allowed them to grow at a much faster pace.

“You can’t be an oyster fisherman without oysters,” said Tesvich. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

The natural coastal land loss over the past half century has in a way benefited the industry. Traditionally some of the world’s best oyster grounds were the narrow bays and bayous where oyster grew 15-20 feet under the surface. As the land subsided a scattering of natural oysters were discovered growing throughout this area.

The CPRA has been charged with developing and implementing efforts of a comprehensive coastal protection for the State.  Their decisions directly affect the State’s oyster industry.  The agency works in conjunction with the State’s Natural Resources, Wildlife and Fisheries, Environmental Quality and the Louisiana Economic Development Departments, as well as the Governor’s office.

Even “man’s best friend” loves to head out on an oyster boat. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

“This area was not naturally productive,” said the Empire oysterman, “To enhance the water bottom we have to spend millions of dollars a year out of their own pocket to plant cultch, small rocks or broken oyster shells that allow seed oysters to attach and mature.  This planted cultch raises the water bottom and forms a natural reef that not only grows oyster, but also is habitat to a variety of seafood.  The public doesn’t see the good things we are doing everyday.”

According to Oyster Task Force Chairman Mitch Jurisich “Every day we do our job is a bonus for all the estuaries and a variety of sea life. Oystermen we don’t go out and look for glamour and glory for what we practice everyday. The Oyster Task Force has taken on the project of educating the public they are the good guys in the fight for the environment.”

For the past several years flooding in the Upper Mississippi Valleys has forced the Corps of Engineers to opened the Bonnet Carre’ spillway for more than 200 days. This has allowed fresh water to almost completely destroy oysters in both Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as damage other seafood.

Oystermen want to ensure the survival of the industry, not just because it is economically important to the identity of Louisiana. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

“Other people make the big decisions; Wildlife and Fisheries, the State, CPRA. The future coastal restoration plans by the CPRA could further damage the oyster industry,” Tesvich told Newsroom Ink.  “The Oyster Task Force is deeply involved in ensuring the right decisions are made, decisions that will not endanger the State’s vital oyster industry.  Often it does feel like our hands our tied, we can’t force anything on anybody.  It is a lack of respect for people working the water and oyster farmers. All we want is clean water and a clean environment.”

“From hurricanes to droughts, flooding to oil spills, Louisiana oystermen have seen it all,” he went on to say sitting in his captain’s chair. “You can’t be an oyster fisherman without oysters. Oystermen want to ensure the survival of the industry, not just because it is economically important to the identity of Louisiana, but because it is vital to the survival of the rapidly disappearing coastal environment.  Oystermen are the original environmentalist.”

“From hurricanes to droughts, flooding to oil spills, Louisiana oystermen have seen it all,” said Tesvich sitting in his captain’s chair. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography