Oyster beds still recovering after storms, oil spill

For the first time in its 100-year-plus history, one of New Orleans’ biggest oyster dealers has resorted to importing oysters to subsidize demand for the shellfish delicacy, which in recent years, dealers say, has become hard to harvest in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Al Sunseri, co-owner of P&J Oyster Co. in the French Quarter and a member of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, said Tuesday that his company has shucked and sold fresh Louisiana oysters for more than 130 years. In his 35 years with the company, he said, he’s never seen anything like today’s market.

“We’re shucking a tenth of the oysters that we used to shuck,” Sunseri said. “It’s not even in the ballpark, and there are months that go by where we don’t have any product to shuck.”

He was in his office, a few blocks from where restaurant owners and seafood industry leaders held a news conference promoting an expanding program to recycle oyster shells in an effort to rebuild oyster seeding areas and help fight coastal erosion.

Sunseri said his company handled up to 25,000 oysters a day before the BP oil spill in 2010 and now only shucks a few thousand a day — some days not any. He rarely has enough product for what was once a thriving retail, shipping and grocery business, he said.

Sunseri said he’s providing what Louisiana oysters he can to the area oyster bars and restaurants that serve them raw, baked and charbroiled in the shell. But he’s had to start importing from Texas, Mississippi and even overseas to meet demand for such dishes as fried oyster po-boys and rich oyster soups, he said.

“I’m gasping, myself, that we’re having to go to that length to have to try to keep our business afloat,” Sunseri said. “It shouldn’t happen. It should have never happened.”

Sunseri said he blames the depleted harvest on the BP oil spill, but some dealers said they were seeing the harvest suffer years before that.

State officials said they don’t have current figures on the size of recent harvests. The National Marine Fisheries Service last released comprehensive figures for the Gulf in September 2012. Those showed 17.1 million pounds of Gulf oysters harvested in 2011, up from 15.8 million in 2010, the year of the spill, but below the 22.8 million of 2009. More than 60 percent of the Gulf oysters came from Louisiana waters.

“Hurricane Katrina was the turning point in my eyes,” said Steven Voisin, owner of Motivatit, an oyster processing company based in Houma.

He said his company’s oyster production is down at least 25 percent and more in areas closer to New Orleans, where he says freshwater diversion projects, a string of hurricanes and the oil spill have cumulatively made oyster harvesting difficult.

The recycling program was organized by the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. The coalition on Tuesday announced that Shell Oil Co. has provided $1 million for the program.