Oysterman talks industry, challenges of harvesting

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Beneath the murky water that hugs the Louisiana coastline lies a treasure that drives one of the state's oldest industries.

"There's not a day on the water I don't eat oysters. I'm on the water, I'm going to taste them," said oysterman, Mitch Jurisich.

Jurisich comes from a long line of oystermen. His family has pulled bivalves from Louisiana waters for 100 years.

Oysters will pass through dozens of hands on their way to a plate, starting with Jurisich and his crew. Their boat is usually on the water to greet the rising sun each day. Depending on the time of year, a trip out can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. The harvesting is part instinct and part science.

"It's like looking at the back of your hand you know when you look at this water and see what's out there," said Jurisich.

Crews use a giant metal rake and net to drag along the bottom of the bay, scooping up oysters as they go. If the scraper drags too deep, it will stir up the muddy bottom. Too shallow, and it comes up empty.

"About every minute, the scraper will come up and we'll dump it on the table and then we'll sort through it," explained Jurisich.

Because oysters grow clustered together, crews sort and separate the shells and toss back any that are too small. Dead oysters or rocks get tossed back too, building a foundation for the next harvest. From the boat, oysters are sent to processing plants like P & J Oyster Company in New Orleans, which claims to be the oldest oyster company in the nation. Processors sell the oysters to stores and restaurants, who sell them to consumers.

"It's truly part of our heritage, who we are, and it's certainly part of so many restaurants that thrive on fresh Louisiana seafood. Of course, the oyster is the pearl of it all," said Sal Sunseri, co-owner of P & J Oyster Company.

The oyster industry does not always ride on smooth waters. Weather, natural predators such as snails, and deluges of fresh water can throw off a harvest. However, Jurisich says there's one thing that worries him most.

"Humans. Politicians. Politics. People trying to change the scope of what Mother Nature provides," said Jurisich. "When man steps in, sad to say a lot of times, they do more harm than good to the environment."

Jurisich is especially worried about state's plans to harness the Mississippi River's building power by creating two sediment diversions to help restore Louisiana's vanishing coastline. "We all need coastal restoration, that's a fact, but the influx of fresh waters in these big, massive diversions they're talking about will totally devastate the oyster industry. It will wipe us out completely," said Jurisich.

That's why Jurisich and others opened their boat to a tour with civilians, and food and culture lovers, to show the value of this historic industry. "The oyster industry does work very hard with the state to try and come up with a good plan. We're working on it. We just need them to listen a little more," said Jurisich.

The New Orleans Oyster Festival provides another opportunity to learn about the industry. The free festival is June 3 and 4. More information can be found here.

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