Copey Pulitzer is hooked. His family has feasted on fresh Louisiana Gulf oysters at Pascal's Manale for three generations. "However they cook their oysters, they're always fantastic," Pulitzer said of the 107-year-old Uptown New Orleans institution that features oysters served Bienville, Dante, Rockefeller, fried, pan-roasted, and raw on the half shell. "Louisiana Gulf oysters are something I grew up with, and I crave the flavor, the salinity, and the size," he said. "It's a delicacy."
But cultivated consumers like Pulitzer may have to curb their collective appetite because the bivalve business recently hit rock bottom. "The Mississippi River flooded to a historic high last year, and that killed a massive number of oysters," Mitch Jurisich, Louisiana Oyster Task Force chairman and owner of Jurisich Oysters, LLC, said. "The influx of warmer fresh water decimated our crops, devastated our oyster beds and all of Louisiana's fisheries. We lost so much that many of us had to shut down operations."
According to the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, 70 percent of all oysters caught in the U.S. are from the Gulf Coast, and Louisiana's commercial oyster industry, which accounts for almost 4,000 jobs, has an economic impact of $317 million annually within the $2.4 billion-per-year Louisiana seafood industry.
Jurisich, a third-generation oyster fisherman who used to dredge up more than one million mollusks a week, said his 2019 numbers took a dive by 50 percent. He predicts conditions will remain cagey until 2022.
When heavy rains in the Midwest caused the Mississippi River to flood for 211 days last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers weighed in by opening the Bonnet Carré Spillway twice to keep New Orleans and regional areas from becoming inundated with water. The February 27 opening lasted for 44 days, and the unprecedented second opening on May 10 lasted 79 days, diverting fresh water into Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne and the Mississippi Sound.
"The combination of the large volume of fresh water and hot water temperatures infiltrating our fertile coastal estuaries, tributaries, and delta created a killing event for our oysters that usually thrive in lukewarm, somewhat brinier conditions," Carolina Bourque, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' Oyster Program manager, said. "In some areas, we found 100 percent mortality east of the Mississippi River. It was a big shock for the oyster industry."
"Fishermen said the oysters could have survived the first Bonnet Carré Spillway opening, but the second opening with the warmer waters is what did them in," Samantha Carroll, Louisiana Seafood Promotions and Marketing Board's executive director, said. "The drastic change in the harvest affected everyone from the oyster fishermen to the wholesalers to the processors and the restaurateurs. It's a chain reaction. The prosperity of the oyster industry hinges upon this freshwater disaster, and it's really up to consumers to help local fishermen weather this storm."
Carroll said oyster season typically lasts all year long for those who fish in private oyster areas. For public oyster areas, the season runs from the first Wednesday after Labor Day to April 30 the following year.
Sal Sunseri Jr., co-owner of the P&J Oyster Company, the oldest continual processor and distributor of oysters in America, which nets a big bite of the action, said the oyster shortage hasn't rocked his boat from his French Quarter headquarters. "Our company has been around since 1876, and there have been freshwater events over the years," he said. "When the spillway openings led to major shortages and lack of production, we were able to find quality product elsewhere. Demand is high, and we're still as strong as ever."
Sourcing oysters from other parts of the Gulf Coast, from Texas to Florida to as far west as Washington state and all along the East Coast, has helped local purveyors buoy the industry. Sunseri said that even though the varied flavor profiles of cultured off-bottom oysters and pricier aquaculture enterprises have caught on and help sustain supply for the half-shell market, it's critical to save Louisiana wild-reef oysters, estuaries, and spawning areas for the future.
Jurisich said scarcity has made Louisiana Gulf oysters the pearl of the industry, but fellow oyster fishermen should not take the bait and inflate prices. "Oysters cost between $15 to $20 more a sack (180-200 oysters) than last year, which is substantial, since last year they cost $10 more than the year prior," he said. "Shucking oysters are going for $50 a sack, and a bushel of premium half-shell oysters is going for between $65 and $70. We have to be careful about pricing ourselves out of the market. We don't want people walking away from the table without eating oysters."
"I never mind paying more for quality," Pascale's Manale fan Pulitzer said. "There was a time when restaurants around town weren't serving oysters, and you just accepted it, but whenever you can help Louisiana fishermen by buying their product, you're doing a community service."
Jen Blackwell's Elysian Seafood & Events serves fresh Gulf seafood and oysters every day at St. Roch Market and Auction House Market, in addition to angling for custom-catering customers. She, too, had to tackle the problem of sourcing. "We started to look west of the Mississippi, where oyster beds were not as badly affected," she said. "During the worst of it, through mid-November, we were paying a lot more per sack. Oysters are a hard business to be in, but we continued to serve wild, farmed, and off-bottom oysters without having to pass along costs to our customers. There was only one day when we couldn't find and serve any oysters at all."
Blackwell said she buys an average of 45 to 50 sacks of oysters a week and saw prices jump as much as 45 percent. As values started to stabilize at the dock last December, Blackwell reevaluated her company's menus and raised their prices. "My oyster sales are down right now, even though we have access to supply," she said. "Over the rough patch, customers thought the oysters didn't taste right, and people were worried about what they were hearing. But we had a lot of Mardi Gras business, and everyone's excited to have oysters back on their plates."
"We may have to pay a little more to procure them, and we may have to look a little farther away to find them, but I haven't had a lot of problems getting them," Carmen Provenzano Jr., Pascal's Manale's general manager, said about supplying his restaurant with Louisiana Gulf oysters. "We've been able to absorb costs so far, and prices have not gone up for our regular menu items as of yet, but we no longer offer them half-price during our half-price Happy Hours."
Provenzano, who first shucked oysters on his grandfather's boat in Chalmette when he was 10 years old, said he's now paying $7 to $8 more a sack than a year ago. He's also starting to see a bit of a recovery, being able to bring in more oysters from the east side of the Mississippi River.
"Louisiana oysters are resilient and have a special place in people's hearts," he said. "They benefit from the unique fresh water and salt water mix that makes the perfect oyster. If I didn't have access to fresh oysters from the Gulf, I wouldn't put oysters on our menu."
"There will be tough years ahead, but there's hope," oyster fisherman Jurisich said. "If we get a good spawn, it will take about three years to get marketable oysters again. Mother Nature takes care of things. She takes, but she gives back tenfold."
Photo by Farrah Ross