So in the early days of the spill a harvest fever swept coastal Louisiana. Mitch Jurisich and his younger brother, Frank, oyster farmers in the coastal town of Empire, hired local fishermen to dredge their oyster beds in an effort to harvest before the oil hit. That lasted only a few weeks, though. By early June the fever had broken. Oil forced the closure of almost all oyster and shrimp grounds along the coast. "My subcontractors are all gone now," Mitch Jurisich told me. "They can make twice as much money laying boom for BP, and I can't blame 'em. I thought about going all out, working 14-hour days," he said. "But then I decided that I wasn't going to let BP dictate how I lived my life. We're running like normal now."
Every morning in predawn darkness Jurisich would pilot his oyster barge up the Empire Channel toward the shallow estuary of Adams Bay. Jurisich's grandfather, a Croatian immigrant, first raked these beds in 1904. Today Mitch and Frank lease some 14,000 acres of oyster beds from the state of Louisiana.
On June 4 the Jurisiches' oyster beds were among the last ones open in Barataria Bay. The oil was roughly six miles away. "The way this wind's blowing, it'll keep moving the oil closer inland," Mitch predicted. "I expect a call this afternoon telling us this is it," meaning a shutdown. With BP's well discharging tens of thousands of barrels a day, there was no way of knowing whether such a closure would last days, weeks, or years. "It feels like we're farming with a monster coming at us," he said.
Two monsters, actually. There was more to fear than just oil.
"Usually by June the river falls, and the higher salinity signals the oysters to spit their larvae," Jurisich said. But that wasn't happening. Weeks earlier state officials had opened Mississippi River diversions to push fresh water through the estuary in a preemptive effort to keep the oil in the open Gulf. Oysters can tolerate wide variations in salinity, but they do need some salt in the water. If the fresh water kept flowing, Jurisich's oysters might die without ever encountering oil. In fact, by late July, low salinity levels had begun to kill oysters in Barataria Bay.
As we reached the oyster beds, Jurisich released two dredges, which looked like chain-link bags embedded with steel tines. "Just like dragging a garden rake," he said.