Louisiana oysters back on market, but what about next year?

Oysters are back on the menu
Oysters are back on the menu Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Louisiana oysters are back, along with shrimp, creating a collective sigh of relief for local restaurants that depend on Gulf seafood.

But supplies are still short and prices high, and production next year might be hurt by the very cleanup efforts meant to save oyster grounds during BP's 120-day Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Flying Fish, a Dallas-based chain with six restaurants, including one on Fort Worth's near west side, stopped offering oysters on the half shell for nearly two months during the spill and resorted to buying shucked Pacific Northwest oysters for its fried platters and po' boys, said Ken Vaughn, 47, director of operations.

"We Have Oysters!," declares a banner over the entrance of its Montgomery Street restaurant. The chain was out of oysters on the half shell from late June until the second weekend of August, Vaughn said.

Roosevelt Pierre, 52, a New Orleans accountant-turned-restaurateur who runs Pierre's Mardi Gras Cafe on Arlington's South Cooper Street, said he bought a $1,500 freezer and carted over a chest freezer from home, then filled them with fresh shrimp and oysters whenever they came onto the market.

Over at Boo-Ray's of New Orleans, a Cajun-style restaurant with locations in Weatherford and Fort Worth, owner Scotty Marks, 38 -- another New Orleans native -- said he had no oysters the second weekend of August. "This week I had plenty."

All reported higher prices from suppliers and often tinier oysters.

At Flying Fish, if a dozen oysters on the half shell are smaller than usual, the kitchen staff will throw in a couple extra, Vaughn said.

Mike Voisin, who operates Motivatit Seafoods of Houma, La., said that as of Thursday only 40 to 50 percent of oyster areas were open.

Also affecting production was the number of harvesters signing up their boats and themselves with BP for cleanup duties. But those efforts are winding down, he said. Overall, oyster shipments were down about 75 percent in recent weeks.

All of the oysters being shipped have been inspected and are safe to eat, Voisin and state fisheries officials said. A number of areas had been closed as a precautionary measure, but only a few saw their seafood stocks tainted by the spill.

When harvesters return to three coastal parishes -- Plaquemines, St. Bernard and Jefferson -- they are going to find dead oysters in areas that once produced award-winning specimens, warned Albert "Rusty" Gaudé, a fisheries specialist with the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center.

Torrents of water were channeled through the oyster beds to remove crude oil. But warm freshwater can be lethal to the bivalve mollusks whose reproductive cycle at this time of year make them particularly vulnerable, Gaudé said.

Voisin called it "friendly fire" and predicted that the well-intentioned maneuver could mean a 50 percent decline in production over the next two years.

"We'll still be the No. 1 producer in the country, but we'll produce half," said Voisin, who testified before a congressional committee this week in the hope of securing federal aid for the damaged industry.

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