A stroke of the pen by Gov. John Bel Edwards late last week prohibits dredging for oysters in Calcasieu Lake and Sabine Lake, limiting legal harvest to hand-tonging only.

State Rep. Stephen Dwight of Lake Charles had sponsored House Bill 156 during the 2017 regular legislative session, which aimed to restore the diminished Big Lake oyster resource and preserve it in Sabine Lake. (Sabine Lake has been closed to oystering for decades by the Department of Health and Hosptials, but the legislation mandates hand-tonging there as well if it ever reopens.)  

“This new law, combined with other oyster reef restoration efforts planned for Calcasieu Lake, provides hope for the badly diminished oyster resource, and protection for Sabine,” Coastal Conservation Association Louisiana CEO David Cresson said in a press release. “Healthy, productive vertical oyster reefs are beneficial to the estuary, and all who rely on it. We appreciate the leadership and vision by Rep. Dwight and Gov. Edwards for signing this into law.”

Big Lake was a prolific oyster-producing lake until the mid-2000s, when scrapers were first allowed as a harvest method. Since then, CCA, who supported the new legislation, says the population has plummeted: In 2003, there were nearly 1.2 million sacks available on Big Lake.

Now, there are fewer than 100,000 sacks available, CCA said.

“The grass roots support from CCA members and conservationists from around Louisiana was critical to the success of this legislation,” Dwight said in the release. “Members of the House and Senate told me of the message they got from their local districts, urging them to vote yes on this bill.

“It became very evident that the well-being of Calcasieu and Sabine is important to people all around Louisiana.”

In an interview on Wednesday, Cresson said the revitalization of the reefs in Big Lake goes way beyond just improving fishing opportunities for anglers.

"It’s no secret that recreational anglers like to fish over oyster reefs because healthy, productive oyster reefs are great habitat for baitfish, and ultimately for fish we like to target. But there are so many other benefits to healthy vertical oyster reefs that go beyond even the oyster intdustry or recreational fishing," Cresson said. "They provide shoreline protection, they filter the water, they provide habitat for all kinds of species of marine life — so there’s lots of positives that come from healthy, veritcal oyster reefs."

State biologists recommended a total closure of the Big Lake oyster season in 2016-17, and prospects for 2017-18 weren’t much better, according to CCA. Now, Dwight says there’s at least a glimmer of hope for next season.

“We all want what’s best for the oyster resource and the industry,” Dwight said. “I hope this new law helps lead to an open harvest season in 2017-18 and beyond, and the long-term recovery of our oyster resource.”