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Hurricanes, Water Wars Threaten New High-End Oyster Industry on Gulf Coast

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Gulf Coast oysters on the half shell at Wintzell's in Mobile, AL. donireewalker / CC BY 2.0

By Daniel R. Petrolia and William C. Walton

For Cainnon Gregg, 2018 started out as a great year. After leaving his job as an installation artist to become a full-time oyster farmer in Wakulla County, Florida in 2017, Gregg began raising small oysters in baskets or bags suspended in the shallow, productive coastal waters of Apalachicola Bay.

Raising oysters "off-bottom" this way takes a lot of time and money, but has a big potential payoff. They are destined for the high-end raw bar market, where offerings are denoted by specific appellations, like "Salty Birds" (Cainnon's oysters), "Navy Coves" (from Alabama) and "Murder Points" (also from Alabama), and can retail for twice the price of oysters harvested from traditional on-bottom reefs.


When Hurricane Michael made landfall at Mexico Beach, Florida, on Oct. 10, it dealt a devastating blow to this nascent industry. Preliminary reports indicate significant damage and heavy crop losses. Raising oysters by any method is not an easy job, but if off-bottom farming can become established along the Gulf Coast, it could give the industry a much-needed boost, give consumers more choices, and provide a new stream of environmental benefits.

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The U.S. produces multiple species of oysters, but historically the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) has accounted for over 70 percent of total harvests. The Gulf Coast generally accounts for 80 percent of those, with production generating $1 billion in annual revenues.

Louisiana is the national leader in oyster production, with a handful of other states vying for second place, including Washington, South Carolina and Texas. However, when states are ranked by value per unit—that is, total value over total landings—states like Massachusetts, Maryland and Virginia dominate.

This is partly due to regional differences in how oysters are grown and marketed. Traditional harvesting of oyster reefs on the sea bottom still dominates in the Gulf region. These oysters are generally sold as a commodity, appearing on menus as simply "oysters" or "Gulf Coast oysters."

Elsewhere, most oysters come from off-bottom farming and tend to be marketed under the names of specific reefs, growers or appellations. Off-bottom oyster farming has been a major driver in the growth of marine aquaculture production nationally.

Oysters are grown in cages at Island Creek Oyster Farm in Duxbury, MA.MA Office of Travel and Tourism / Hanks, CC BY-ND

The Gulf's first commercial off-bottom farms started up in Alabama and Louisiana in 2010. Today more than 50 farms are operating in Florida, Alabama and Louisiana, with permits pending for others in Mississippi. Harvest data are limited, but in Alabama alone, eleven farms collectively reported nearly $2 million in sales in 2016. In recent years Alabama has ranked among the top five states in per-unit value.

Reasons to Diversify

Raising off-bottom oysters is good for more than oystermen's bottom lines. Oysters improve water clarity by filtering out phytoplankton, thereby removing nitrogen from the water column. They also provide forage grounds and habitat for fish and act as breakwaters, protecting nearby shorelines.

Off-bottom farms deliver the same types of benefits as traditional on-bottom reefs, although in slightly different ways and at different times, depending on local conditions and farming methods. In our view, raising oysters in multiple ways is beneficial because it avoids putting all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak, and makes the industry more resilient.

We come at this topic from different perspectives. Daniel Petrolia focuses on the economics of coastal resources and natural hazards. William Walton directs Auburn University's Marine Invertebrate Fisheries, Restoration and Aquaculture Lab. We have worked together since 2011 to better understand oyster habitats, evaluate market opportunities and identify and tackle challenges for the new industry. Disaster preparation and recovery clearly are top priorities.

We see off-bottom oyster farming as especially interesting economically, given its novelty on the Gulf Coast, the new market opportunities it affords growers and the diversity it brings to the Gulf Coast's oyster habitat "portfolio." It also offers new choices for people who like to eat Gulf Coast oysters.

Panacea Oyster Co-op overview youtu.be

Natural and Man-Made Disasters

Hurricanes and storms pose serious threats to the Gulf oyster industry. They can harm reefs by burying them in sediments or drastically altering water salinity.

Storm impacts tend to be highly localized. Prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mississippi was the fourth-largest oyster-producing state in the nation. Katrina slashed the state's output by 80 percent that year, and fishermen were unable to harvest oysters at all in 2006. Production recovered somewhat over the next several years, but Mississippi harvests have remained around one-tenth of pre-Katrina levels.

Louisiana, whose oyster reefs lie just west of where Katrina made landfall, saw just a 6 percent drop in production following Katrina. The impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster were shorter-lived, but Louisiana's 2010 harvest was cut in half due to precautionary closures during and after the spill. Oysters were also killed by releases of fresh water from the Mississippi River, which were conducted in an effort to keep oil out of coastal estuaries.

Storms are not the only threat. Florida and Georgia have been fighting for decades over allocating water from the Apalachicola River; when Georgia draws a high level of water, it reduces freshwater flow to Apalachicola Bay, which can lead to increases in oyster mortality from predation and disease. And harmful algal blooms, such as Florida's massive 2018 red tide outbreak, can close waters to harvesting.

Beyond direct impacts on oyster farms, Hurricane Michael damaged state laboratories that conduct water quality testing required to re-open waters to harvesting. Testing delays could lead to prolonged closures and even affect areas not hit by the storm. Michael also disrupted red tide sampling in several Panhandle counties. In Gulf and Escambia counties, red tide concentrations actually increased in late October.

Farmers will be looking for more oyster seed—the small oysters that they need to restock their bags and baskets. This could drive up demand and strain the industry's capacity. Unlike crop farmers on land, oyster farmers cannot buy subsidized insurance to help them with losses of oysters and gear, so those who suffered heavy damage will be challenged to rebuild their operations.

Hurricane Michael failed to break up the red tide outbreak along Florida's west coast. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Not an Easy Business

As we write, oyster farmers in the Panhandle are still inspecting their farms for damage and seeing how their oysters fared. Some estimate that they may have lost 60 to 90 percent of their crops.

Oystermen have strategies for dealing with hurricanes, such as sinking baskets loaded with oysters to the bottom before the storm arrives. But they can only reduce risk, not eliminate it. The threat of rising sea levels and more intense storms will force them to continue adapting and improving their strategies.

Earlier this year, Cainnon Gregg started selling "Salty Birds" to some of the finest oyster bars in the South. Two days after Hurricane Michael passed through, he was back on the water checking lines and making repairs. "There's nothing easy about any of this, and all you can do is get back out here and get back to work," he said. He could have been speaking for all Gulf oystermen.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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By Jake Johnson

Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

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In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.