Green Guide

Louisiana to approve oyster lease for 1st time in 19 years

Posted February 21, 2021 9:34 a.m. EST

— It’s been 19 years since Louisiana, stung by a $1 billion court judgment, last opened its water bottoms for new oyster leases. But the state is now lifting its moratorium, raising hopes among oyster harvesters who have endured a series of setbacks from Mother Nature as well as the BP oil disaster.

Some of their never-considered lease applications date back to 1998.

“This is a big deal, a momentous occasion to be getting back into leasing water bottoms again,” said Marc Maniscalco, oyster lease program manager for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

The department changed its leasing rules last year and has now started reviewing 35 applications that have gone unprocessed over the past 22 years. Some of these applicants have been tied up in litigation with the state over the oyster grounds in Jefferson, Lafourche, Plaquemines, St. Bernard and Terrebonne parishes.

Corey Dunbar, a Belle Chasse-based lawyer represents some of the applicants, including longtime oyster harvester Terry Alexis, who since 2000 has been seeking leasing rights to more than 450 acres of water bottoms. Dunbar said all of clients are eager to see more leases open up in new grounds and to expand their current leases.

Ultimately, the oyster fishers just want to focus on their livelihood: growing and selling oysters.

“When they’re having to deal with the politics of everything, they’re not able to grow and sell oysters,” Dunbar said.

The ban aimed to limit the state’s liability should coastal restoration work affect water bottoms, after the 1993 operation of the Caernarvon freshwater diversion project rendered some of private oyster leases on Plaquemines Parish’s east bank unproductive. Oyster fishers sued over their losses in Breton Sound.

A jury ruled in the fishers’ favor, almost forcing the state to pay out more than $1 billion in damages. That ruling was overturned by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2004, recognizing that clauses placed in lease agreements held the state harmless. But the moratorium on new leases persisted.

Louisiana’s $317 million oyster industry has been battered with challenges such as the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in 2010 and record Mississippi River flood seasons. In the coming years, some efforts to restore Louisiana’s eroding coast will likely cause extensive, short-term harm to oyster leases.

Talks between state officials and the Louisiana Oyster Task Force led to the lifting the moratorium and opening new areas for harvesting in attempts to ease some of the burden.

Byron Encalade, Louisiana Oysterman Association president, said he thinks new leasing will help his industry more forward. Encalade lost more than 60% of his oyster leases after the Caenarvon freshwater diversion structure opened.

“We need to take the handcuffs off our oyster industry so that the state ... can better manage it,” he said. “There needs to be more options to work with the oyster industry and make sure we have a viable industry down here.”

Once the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries works its way through the old applications, it will move to offering the former owners of leases affected by the Caernarvon project the chance to reinstate their leases.

The state is taking a phased approach to lifting the ban. Maniscalco said he thinks the first two phases will be finalized in the next two to three years. From there, current leaseholders will have the chance to expand their lease boundaries as far as 500 feet in all directions to where land has receded, a privilege lost to the oyster harvesters when laws changed in 2010.

After current lessees expand, the department will focus on cataloguing areas where water bottoms are dually claimed by the state and a private property owner. In some cases, property owners who bought land before the soil eroded have their own lease agreements with oyster harvesters for the water bottoms.

In the past, the state has issued its own leases to oyster fishers for a contested area and ticketed others who hold agreements with private property owners. This phase of the agency’s work will help it catalogue where private agreements exist and reconcile the conflicts.

The final two phases will let the general public enter a lottery to apply for an oyster lease for the remaining available areas. The department has also announced plans in its draft oyster habitat strategy to open at least 100 new oyster leases in productive areas, giving longtime harvesters the chance to diversify outside of areas that will probably be affected by coastal restoration projects and giving first-generation fishers a shot at their own lease.

“We want to give everyone the opportunity to apply if they feel like it’s something they want to do and we need acreage to be able to do that,” said Maniscalco.

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