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Mississippi has pumped millions of dollars into its declining oyster industry, hoping to revive what was once a dominant trade. But in a nod to reality, the state is about to move in a decidedly different direction: scaling back government efforts and leasing to private industry water bottoms where oysters grow.

The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources currently manages and maintains most of those water bottoms, opening them to the public only when enough oysters are available for harvest. But there has been no such harvest on public reefs since 2018 because oysters are too scarce. Under a new law recently signed by Gov. Tate Reeves, Marine Resources will maintain only about 20% of permitted reef acreage for potential public harvest. The rest will be available for private lease.

The shift comes after a series of natural disasters, beginning with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, decimated Mississippi Sound reefs where oysters settle and grow to adulthood. The reefs are ecologically important to the Mississippi Sound and also once contributed millions of dollars a year in sales to the state’s economy.A recent investigation by

ProPublica and the Sun Herald, however, showed that the state’s efforts to address the crisis have fallen short. It found that Mississippi has spent more than $55 million to rebuild reefs since 2005, but did so in ways that did not respond to changing conditions.

The Department of Marine Resources, which regulates and oversees the state’s oysters and has advocated for more private leasing of reefs, has said it doesn’t have the money or staffing to maintain more than 8,112 acres of public reefs in today’s climate.

State Sen. Mike Thompson, of Pass Christian, who authored the bill, said he hopes private industry is able to replenish reefs in a commercially viable way, while also improving the overall health of the Mississippi Sound. “My hope is that water quality and habitat issues in the Sound will start getting right,” he said.

Thompson said he used the state of Louisiana’s more extensive private leasing program as a model for the Mississippi legislation. In Louisiana, private oyster grounds have rebounded from disasters because leaseholders can act quickly to restore damage and spend more time maintaining their investments.

Mississippi previously had a private leasing program for oyster farming, but most of the leased water bottoms were not being maintained. The approved legislation mandates that farmers work their leases or risk losing them. But it also gives oyster farmers more time to build up reefs, with 15-year leases as opposed to the current five-year lease terms. Leaseholders also will have first right of renewal on their water bottoms.

Thompson said Marine Resources has already mapped out lease areas where it will keep control and maintain established reefs. And it will put the revenue it receives from the leases toward oyster restoration projects. The law also sets out a process for Marine Resources to enter into and enforce the leases.

Joe Spraggins, executive director of Marine Resources, hopes the lease program will be in place by August. The agency will advertise for lease proposals and evaluate them with names of applicants removed, so the process will be fair, he said.

The state has traditionally used fresh shell or limestone to replenish the reefs created by oysters. But farmers put more effort into their reefs, planting shell or rock and raking or turning the material at intervals so that oyster larvae have clean surfaces to settle on.

Ryan Bradley of the nonprofit organization Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United expects interest in leasing to be high. He said he hopes Marine Resources will be transparent in setting up the lease program by notifying the public that it is available and posting information on its website.