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  • "A Self-Inflicted Wound"The Impact of Coastal Erosion and Restoration on Louisiana's Oyster Industry
  • Rebecca Bond Costa (bio)

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The case of Avenal v. the State of Louisiana drew public attention to the ongoing challenges of protecting natural resources—challenges that governments and communities across the country had been struggling with for decades. Aerial view of Louisiana wetlands, January 19, 2006. This image originates from the National Digital Library of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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In December 2000, a jury in Plaquemines Parish awarded $48 million to five Louisiana oyster fishers. By filing suit against the state, Albert J. Avenal, Kenneth Fox, Clarence Duplessis, Nick Skansi, and Fox Oyster Company drew public attention to the ongoing challenges of protecting natural resources—challenges that governments and communities across the country had been struggling with for decades. In fact, oyster fishers on the East Coast had seen 99 percent of Chesapeake Bay oysters disappear since the nineteenth century because of overfishing and disease. In 2005, the problem had become so grave that an environmental consultant in Maryland petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to place that specific variety of oyster on the endangered species list. The request drew ire due to its probable impact on oyster fishers' livelihoods—but there remained a sense that something needed to be done to address the long-term problem. These ongoing tensions highlight the complex crucible of competing political, economic, and cultural interests born from Louisiana's deteriorating costal environment.

According to the oyster fishers involved in the suit, the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion (cfwd)—a channel built to move fresh water from the Mississippi River to the Breton Sound estuary in order to restore the area's ecosystem—had "ruined 3,049 acres of Breton Sound oyster beds and rendered their [oyster] leases worthless." Louisiana's oyster industry had long allowed private individuals to use public resources for personal gain, and when the ecosystem providing those resources began showing signs of stress, the state created restoration programs to mitigate some of the threats associated with coastal land loss. The various projects were intended to protect the long-term health of the coast, but—as Avenal vs. the State of Louisiana showed—these programs have produced mixed results in the short-term for individuals.1

The state also had something to lose once the oyster fishers brought suit. The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (crcl)—a nonprofit advocacy group established during the 1980s—noted that if the jury's verdict stood, then the damage to the state's budget and restoration efforts would be a "self-inflicted wound." Though the diversion had begun operations in 1991 to address the catastrophic loss of wetlands in southern Louisiana, officials such as Louisiana Governor Mike Foster warned that such a large settlement posed a significant threat to other coastal restoration projects. A few weeks after the jury's verdict in Avenal, the state's attorney for the case commented, "Basically, the state can't afford to go forward with coastal restoration if this is what's going to happen." If the courts applied the terms of this case to additional litigants, the state could be required to pay up to $1.3 billion in a broader class action suit.2

Louisiana legislators and agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources (dnr) responded to the lawsuit by attempting to reduce the possibility that the state would have to pay expensive legal settlements. Meanwhile, efforts to balance [End Page 28] the public's interest in a sustainable coast against the varied interests of private citizens were piecemeal, and, in the case of Avenal, initially left to the courts. The state Supreme Court, citing a history of jurisprudence that affirmed the concept of the "public trust doctrine," most clearly articulated Louisiana's duty to protect the coast from further degradation—even if doing so meant that some individuals suffered adverse economic impacts. In contrast, the state legislature focused on limiting the government's exposure to future litigation rather than developing a comprehensive plan to balance public and private interests.3

The eventual outcome of...


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