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Two major disasters have hit the commercial fishing industry on the Gulf Coast over the last decade and a half, Hurricane Katrina and then the BP oil spill. As historic flooding continues along the Mississippi River, are we watching a third? Here's Travis Lux of member station WWNO in New Orleans.
TRAVIS LUX, BYLINE: The Mississippi River is like a giant funnel, except instead of a can of gas at the bottom, it's the Gulf Coast. In a normal year, the river swells during the spring, and then it drops back down. But this has not been a normal year. The river has been flooding for close to a year now, pumping an endless flow of fresh water into the salty Gulf of Mexico.
That's causing big-time problems for people who make their living from those waters, people like oysterman Mitch Jurisich.
(SOUNDBITE OF OYSTER SHELLS CLACKING)
LUX: Jurisich is standing on a boat docked in Empire, La., where he's picking through a pile of freshly harvested oysters.
MITCH JURISICH: This one's good right here. This one's not good.
LUX: Healthy oysters have brownish-gray shells that are tightly shut. Most of these are black, and the shells are open and loose - nothing inside but mud and rotten meat.
JURISICH: And if I had to look at this pile right here, you could probably say 90% is, you know, pretty much dead.
LUX: Ninety percent. Massive oyster die-offs are happening all across the Gulf Coast. The killer - too much fresh Mississippi River water.
Quick background - oysters thrive in the brackish waters of the coast where the salty water from the Gulf meets the fresh water from the Mississippi River. Oysters can handle some fluctuations, but they also can't move. So if it gets too salty or too fresh for too long, they can die.
JURISICH: You know, other species have a tail, have legs. They can somewhat get out of the way. So this poor oyster's got to sit there. And when it's just what it is, he's just got to take it on the chin.
LUX: Months of Mississippi River flooding have pummeled these oysters with fresh water. Louisiana officials say the oyster harvest here in public areas is down 80%. Mississippi says 70% of its oysters have died. Those numbers are expected to increase. And it's not just oyster harvesters who are affected; it's the whole industry - restaurants, distributors and processors.
JENNIFER JENKINS: If we don't have oysters, we don't have much of anything to do.
LUX: Jennifer Jenkins owns Crystal Seas Seafood in Pass Christian, Miss. She's an oyster processor who buys oysters from harvesters like Jurisich and then cleans them, shucks them and sells them to bigger companies, like chain restaurants. Jenkins says she's had a hard time filling her orders lately. There just aren't enough oysters. Recently, one of her clients - a major restaurant chain - just stopped doing business with her.
JENKINS: They're not quite positive about how they feel about the quality of oysters that are being harvested right now.
LUX: She's worried she might have to shut down, something she's only done twice before - Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.
ROBERT TWILLEY: This is unprecedented.
LUX: Robert Twilley heads Louisiana Sea Grant, which focuses on helping the fishing industry. He says we've had high river conditions before, but we've never had ones lasting this long. But he says estuaries and the critters that live in them are pretty resilient.
TWILLEY: And so the fish will be back, and it could be next year. But that doesn't help fishermen who's trying to pay their bills right now.
LUX: There could be some help on the horizon. Both Louisiana and Mississippi have declared fisheries disasters. But any relief money is likely months away and would have to first be appropriated by Congress. Long-term, climate change will likely continue to fuel extreme events like Mississippi River flooding. Twilley says the oyster industry will need to adapt, even if that means growing oysters in new locations or using different gear. Oysterman Mitch Jurisich says those fishing commercially have always adjusted.
JURISICH: Maybe not to this magnitude, but you've seen changes. You know, one thing about this whole environment - you know, we evolve with it. You know, we change as the coast changes.
LUX: And he's not alone. All this extra water has been causing headaches up and down the Mississippi River, from shipping and navigation to farming. And if flooding like this becomes more common, they, too, will have to change with the river's flow.
For NPR News, I'm Travis Lux in Empire, La. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.