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From the Southern Mississippi Sun Herald

Oyster test bed to be planted in polluted waters

BAY ST. LOUIS - Feb 7, 2021 - The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources has worked for years to enhance commercial oyster habitat in state waters. Several smaller oyster beds have even been planted to help improve recreational fishing opportunities by diversifying the underwater habitat.

But this year, the agency has embarked on something new, an oyster bed planting in polluted waters intended to demonstrate the oyster's ability to clean contamination from the water and improve overall aquatic habitat.

"There's a lot of high hopes," said DMR Staff Officer Joe Jewell, a co-author on the $24,990 grant funded through the Gulf of Mexico Foundation. "A lot of people are concerned about water quality."

The five acres of oysters to be planted in coming months will be on the northern side of the Bay of St. Louis off Grassy Point, which is regularly off limits to oyster harvesting because of high fecal coliform bacteria counts. The new beds aren't expected to transform the bay, but the project could supply some good data for future projects.

"We're hoping for the best, but also as scientists we have to be very cautious," Jewell said. After all, a good prolonged rain could flush so much freshwater through the reef that it may not be able to reproduce at all. "Hopefully we can get a decent spat set," he said.

George Ramseur of The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit conservation organization and one of the partners on the grant, said many are watching the project. "The filtering capacity of oysters is really incredible," Ramseur said. "It's bound to produce some interesting data."

While the year-long grant doesn't offer enough time to determine the viability of the reef's placement or performance, the DMR will continue to monitor it for about five years, Jewel said. "We're hoping it will be there a whole lot longer and be successful on its own," he said.

Meanwhile, the University of Southern Mississippi's J.L. Scott Aquarium, another project partner, will be developing an exhibit to discuss the undertaking and educate the public about the filtering capacity of oysters. "We want the public to know we're doing this, especially if we are successful," Jewel said.

The planting is planned for April and May, with bids for the project going out later this month, said Dale Diaz, shellfish project coordinator at the DMR.

Other partners include the Mississippi-Alabama SeaGrant Consortium, Coast Conservation Association, Gulf Fishery Banks, U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor's office and the Gulf Ecological Management Sites program.

A second grant being pursued through the Fish America Foundation may see a similar reef planted in the Back Bay of Biloxi, near the DMR offices.

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