A Black Teen Is Helping Save Mississippi’s Oysters

PASS CHRISTIAN, MS – APRIL 21: A man cleans oysters for distribution at Crystal Seas Oysters in Pass Christian, Mississippi April 21, 2014.

by Willy Blackmore

The oyster reefs off the coast of Mississippi, which filter water and help protect the mainland from powerful storms and hurricanes, have had a rough time for the better part of two decades. 

The once-extensive, publicly-owned beds have been devastated by a string of both natural and man-made disasters. They range from Hurricane Katrina, which either damaged or destroyed 90% of the reefs in 2005, to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and an Army Corps of Engineers floodwater strategy decision that triggered  a freshwater intrusion into the Mississippi Sound in 2011. 

Both the state and a variety of conservation groups have been trying to revive the oyster reefs, and they’re getting help from citizens too – including a Black teenage girl from Mississippi 

Demi Johnson, who has been growing her own oysters off a Biloxi pier since she was in the seventh grade. She  was recently in Washington, D.C., where she won a Slingshot Challenge Significant Achievement Award from the National Geographic Society for her conservation work, which includes a $1000 grant to help fund her oyster-growing efforts.

“I found out that oyster reefs and gardens are endangered, so I felt inspired to help the environment, to give back to it,” Johnson said in an interview with a local TV news station last year. As of March, she’s raised over 1,000 oysters.

There’s little doubt that her help is needed to preserve the oyster beds. The trio of disasters  led to 86% of the oysters that comprise the state-owned reefs to die, according to one study. The collapse has not only affected the state’s oyster-fishing industry, which once thrived harvesting wild shellfish from the public reefs, but has put the state’s Gulf Coast at a great risk of flooding during storm surges and other high-tide events.

Johnson has plans that go beyond her own oyster cages too: as she explained in a video that she made for the Slingshot Challenge, she wants to develop a program so that other Mississippi students can learn how to grow oysters too.