Oysters Abound in Cajun Country

GIS helps Louisiana officials chart oyster-bed leases in the state's 400,000 acres of "bottom waters."

by / May 31, 1999
The edible oyster, distinct from the pearl oyster, is a significant portion of the income produced by Louisiana's fishing industry. From dredging to dining, the state's oyster products generate $100 million annually, roughly 35 percent of the nation's oyster catch. Such a lucrative market requires strict regulation to prevent a "Chesapeake scenario" -- the destruction of oyster reefs from overharvesting followed by the collapse of the industry.

In Louisiana, where oysters have been an important industry since the mid-1800s, harvesting is regulated by the Survey Section of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LW&F). The agency administers some 8,000 oyster-bed leases in the state's 400,000 acres of "bottom waters," or coastal shallows.

Agency responsibilities include conduct- ing oyster-resource and lease-boundary surveys, processing lease applications, invoicing lease holders, and publishing lease availability, statistics and other news affecting the oyster industry.

Until the late 1980s, the oyster leasing process was paper-based; surveys, accounting, applications and related records were kept on various forms, plat maps and index cards. Office personnel were often tied up processing applications and tracking down leases for oyster fishermen. They also provided hydrologic and survey data, and oyster leasing information for oil companies, seismic companies and survey engineering firms.

"We deal with them as much as with anybody else," said Clarence Meyers, engineering-technician supervisor in the Oyster Lease Survey Section. "They are not necessarily interested in owning leases; they want to avoid running over them." Meyers said the staff was "besieged with requests for listings of leases from other agencies as well as from private industry."

As demand for information grew, it became clear that a more efficient operation was needed to administer the leasing process and provide up-to-date listings of oyster leases. "The paper listings would be outdated in a day or two," Meyers explained, "and we didn't want to be responsible for giving out incorrect information."

Since the agency already had an Intergraph MGE (Modular GIS Environment) package, Meyers outlined a plan to use the system to automate labor-intensive steps involved in lease processing.

Executing the Plan

In the first phase, Intergraph's COGO Works, a coordinate geometry package, was used to enter lease boundaries from paper documents to CAD (computer-aided design) MicroStation files, and to create precise polygons representing each lease on a U.S. Geographical Survey 7.5-minute quadrangle map (quad). Using MGE, the agency numbered the leases and overlaid them onto the quad. By clicking on a lease number, the office staff could instantly pull up the location and coordinates of that lease.

University students were then brought in over two summers to transfer paper-based lease documents, dating from the 1920s onward, to an Oracle database. Again, using the MGE, Meyers connected the lease numbers in the CAD files to the complete legal description of the leases -- owner, location, size, duration, payments, etc. -- in the Oracle database.

The office staff could now could pull up complete information about a lease simply by clicking on the lease number. If more complex data was needed, GIS personnel could query the database using SQL (structured query language) in Oracle.

Automating The Leasing Process

Although the agency staff could now use word processors, filling out data fields in multiple documents, billing and sending delinquency notices and publishing lists of available leases were still time-consuming operations, made moreso because the leasing process required several documents for each transaction.

Since all the data was now in digital format, however, the next step was automation. Following Meyers' plan, consultant Jane Goodman of GeoQuery Inc. wrote several programs using Visual Basic and Bentley's MicroStation MDL to print documents, record payments, generate invoices, lease applications and delinquency listings for publication.

The program allows users to query the database for various statistics. It also provides a simple user interface for previewing documents before printing and for displaying custom views of the database online.

Oysters Online

With the introduction of Intergraph's GeoMedia WebMap in 1997, publishing intelligent maps on the Web became a relatively straightforward process. In one day, Goodman used the technology to develop a Web page for the Oyster Lease Survey Section.

At the Web site, visitors can locate leases by lease number, quad or leasee. They can view a map of the entire coastal area and zoom in on a quad. Clicking on a lease number on the map brings up information about that lease, including its location, size in acres, application number, expiration date and information about the owner's other leases.

Visitors can also check the list of available leases, scan the map for open areas, then come into the leasing office and place an application. Since GeoMedia WebMap generates displayed maps on the fly, office personnel can make changes to the data and have them instantly reflected in the Web site. The problem of outdated listings had been solved.

The Customers Are Happy

Steimle & Associates, an environmental engineering firm in Metairie, La., conducts oyster resource surveys in conjunction with inshore oil field operations, as required by the state. Company engineer Raymond Albert explained that when a project comes in, the firm uses the Oyster Web page to search for leases in the proposed work area and determine which leases they need copies of.

"With this Web site, we don't have to leave the office; we can get the basic information we need via the Internet. Of course, we still have to go to LW&F in New Orleans to get paper copies of the lease plats. Hopefully, in the future, they'll be able to expand their services so we can actually get lease plats through an electronic medium," Albert said.

"The Web site is very user-friendly and easy to access," said Motivatit Sea Foods owner Mike Voisin. "We use it to access information about different areas, what is leased in those areas and the size and perimeters of the leases. We're about 60 miles outside of New Orleans. In the past, we would have had to drive in there to get that information, take somebody in the office off what they were doing in the survey section, look at a map, then get an individual lease document and make sure we were in the right area. Now it's just point and click. The timeliness of the information saves money for government and industry alike."

Future Developments

By this summer, the agency will use satellite imagery underneath the base map to give viewers a better representation of areas of interest. Another plan is to enable the program to take a snapshot of the area the potential lessor is interested in, and paste it into a lease application document generated by the Visual Basic program.

The agency expects to have this capability within the year. However, Meyers says fishermen will still have to come to the office to apply for a lease "We want to maintain some personal connection with our clients."

"By automating the leasing process," Meyers said, "we can now do in seconds what used to take several minutes. It has cut the number of walk-in clients by 50 percent, and it has enabled us to more effectively administer the leasing of oyster beds while meeting the needs of the industry."

Bill McGarigle is a writer specializing in communications and information technology. He is based in Santa Cruz, Calif. Email