Raising the Bottom: Coastal Farmers on the Front-line

Mitch Jurisich
Mitch Jurisich

The family of oystermen I met and joined for a part of their workday spent half their day hauling “cultch” to the marsh and the other half of the day harvesting.

As a guest of Sal Sunseri and the P&J Oyster Co., I’d been invited on a “reality tour” of oyster harvesting and all that’s involved: the land, the people and what it takes to make the industry happen.

We arrived in Empire, LA an important port of the Mississippi Delta. This area of the Mississippi Delta has been taking the recent storms right on the chin and the wetlands continue to lose land at the most rapid pace of anywhere in the world. But the marsh and the bays are still beautiful and to those who haven’t witnessed the wetland loss, the area likely looks pristine, untainted.

To those with any memory of the Delta here, rather seeing the marshes spread wide and as far as the eye can see, they see vast expanses of water ….. the Gulf of Empire you might say….. thanks to the erosion, subsidence, sea level rise, Katrina of course and last but not least, manmade catastrophes.
The other one that most outdoorsmen know but that is often lost on the greater public is the network of canals and pipelines that cut through the marshes. These were built for the oil industry and were built with “point A to point B as efficiently as possible” in mind, not with “how do we operate without tearing apart the estuaries.”

On a heartier note, there are those in Plaquemines whose families have been devoted to this strip of land for generations stretching back into the 1800’s whose roots have grown much deeper than those of the grasses of the wetlands.

The Jurisiches are one such family of the many immigrants from Eastern Europe who arrived over a century ago and have stayed their ground through generations. You hear people say they will do something “come hell or high-water.” The residents of Plaquemines Parish down here have made good on that statement.

Currently, Mitch Jurisch and his son Nathan are keeping the family business alive and thriving despite the double-blow dealt by BP and Katrina.

Honestly, I arrived expecting a gloomy presentation of how hard life has been down here. And that would be fair enough because it has been. Instead I took a tour through a day alive with passion, pride and productivity. Mitch was happy to share the knowledge of his livelihood and to share that business has been booming. This year’s crop has been phenomenal, the best in his family’s history.

The oysters being harvested are beautiful and plentiful.

Ready to be slurped!

It’s easy to be happy to when things are going great. But from the questions I threw at Mitch regarding oysters and how they grow and reproduce, it came up that next year will be the first year for him to really take the hit of losing 2-3 major spawns due to the BP spill and public grounds are very low on the seed oysters that many oystermen depend on to renew their crops.

In a matter of fact way, he said that he expects 50% less production next year. He didn’t seem overly concerned about that.

Turns out that the life of oystermen involves constantly working in an environment with a delicate balance- particularly when it comes to the levels of salinity in the estuaries in which Louisiana’s famous oysters thrive. The salt and fresh water are always coming and going and mixing in different proportions. In fact, they need to mix in different proportions at specific times for the oysters to become the great table fare that oyster bars and restaurants around the country proudly serve. Some seasons are great; some are tough. This is just part of this industry. You adapt. You do what you have to do.

There are the predictable tides but also the less predictable: the volume of the Mississippi, effects of predator species, the severity of storms and perhaps the worst of all, the man-made disasters.

Tempered by generational knowledge of calamities and survivorship, Mitch’s attitude was one of necessary optimism. What I saw was a man who truly enjoys his job and all that comes with it, despite what comes with it. I haven’t met many people enjoying their work with such gusto.

As for the possible changes that may be coming down the pipeline, or perhaps we should say “coming down the River,” even Mitch Jurisich expressed serious concern. In the next few years, empowered by billions dollars, an extreme urgency to save the coast, and volumes of scientific research that is sometimes conflicting, the state of Louisiana will try to determine how best to direct the ecology of south LA …. so that the Gulf of Empire doesn’t become the Gulf of New Orleans.

The Delta is home to one of the most biologically productive zones in the world. It was built over thousands and thousands of years and is being lost over decades and could be nearly gone in 50 years at the current pace of decline.

Depending on how the State Master Plan is implemented, the effects of creating large diversions of the River and releasing vast amounts of freshwater and sediment into the marshes to rebuild lost land could test the Jurisiches more than any of the past battles they have survived over last 100 century.

Louisiana is known as Sportsman’s Paradise and the Mississippi River Delta is the heart of it. In order to save it, drastic measures need to be taken and swiftly but as to how it is to be done is a matter of intense debate. With so many interests involved- economic, environmental and personal -and with conflicting science and even conflicting “backwoods wisdom” among those who are daily living the loss of their home and livelihoods, the situation is excruciatingly complicated. It’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” and no matter the decisions to be made, casualties will be the result. The battle but is being lost, and it’s time for “all hands on deck.” Who will make the greatest sacrifices in this battle is unknown as of yet.

In the meantime…. back to the “cultch”…..cultch is rock or broken pieces of cement and limestone, material laid down on oyster grounds to furnish points of attachment for the spat.
The spat eventually grow into oysters. Then like coral, oysters reefs grow and build over time forming their own eco-systems and sustaining thousands of life forms, from algae to shrimp and crabs, all the way up to the revered red fish and speckled trout to sharks and fishermen at the top of the food chain. In fact more than 170 marine species have been documented at natural oyster reefs in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

The marsh is said to be subsiding at least 1/3 inch per year (not including any sea level changes) and losing a football field-size area every hour. In the meantime, the Jurisches are buying cultch, hauling it out to the marsh and dumping it daily, building little reefs constantly. Mitch figures this raises the bottom up to 2 inches wherever they concentrate their efforts.

Bow of oyster boat laden with cultch headed to the reefs (marked by the poles)
Bow of oyster boat laden with cultch headed to the reefs (marked by the poles)

Their world is sinking around them and they are raising what they can, a little bit at a time, year after year, generation after generation.

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