'Grim' season inspires new tactics for oyster bars
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — People queued up as usual outside Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter one recent day, while inside the aroma of oysters bubbling on the grill filled the dining room and servers whisked past with trays of po-boys.
But at the marble-topped oyster bar, something was starkly amiss: No one was slurping raw oysters.
Facing a dramatic plunge in the supply of Louisiana oysters, Acme has temporarily stopped serving raw oysters at all seven of its regional restaurants.
“If we can’t get Louisiana oysters, we’re not going to serve raw oysters at all,” Acme CEO Paul Rotner said.
“Every oyster we get in, we’re directing them to the grill so we can at least keep that product available,” he said. “And I’m not sure how long we can even keep doing that.”
Acme is not alone. Drago’s Seafood, another major player in the local oyster business, made the same decision.
Restaurateur Tommy Cvitanovich said that, for now, none of his four Drago’s locations is serving raw oysters, instead reserving whatever flow of in-shell oysters the business can cobble together for the grill.
“The charbroiled oyster is my signature dish. We have to keep that going, and it’s taking all we have,” said Cvitanovich. “It’s just that bad.”
Dire predictions for this year’s oyster season have been stacking up since the spring, when an unprecedented influx of freshwater from the Mississippi River began washing through many of Louisiana’s prime oyster growing grounds. Now the results are showing up at oyster bars.
Oysters are scarce, and restaurants are paying through the teeth to scrounge whatever they can. It’s forced some unusual calculations for a traditional local pleasure and brought foreboding for the future.
Fall is when Louisiana normally begins harvesting a torrent of oysters. This year, the torrent is barely a trickle.
Restaurants have resorted to rationing. They’re reaching far beyond their normal local supply chains to get whatever boxes and sacks of oysters they can find, revising menus and tapping stockpiles of frozen product to keep fried oysters on their po-boys and seafood platters.
Many in the business are calling the shortage the worst they’ve ever seen, worse than the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 or the BP oil spill disaster in 2010, both of which devastated the local industry.
“It’s never been this bad in my lifetime,” said Carolina Bourque, oyster program manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Louisiana is the heart of the U.S. oyster industry, historically producing a third of the nation’s total harvest. In 2017, the state landed 13.3 million pounds of them, according to federal commercial fishing data. The abundance is shipped to restaurants and markets across the country and fuels a robust oyster culture around Louisiana dining tables.
Oysters thrive in the state’s coastal estuarine environment, with its mix of freshwater and brine. But this year that mix was thrown off radically by an extraordinary influx of freshwater.
Heavy rainfall across the Midwest led to months of high water levels on the Mississippi River and through the Atchafalaya Basin, testing the region’s flood control systems. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers twice opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway, which protects New Orleans and downstream communities from river flooding.
The spillway’s freshwater outflow barreled through Lake Pontchartrain toward the Gulf of Mexico and straight across some of the state’s best oyster growing areas, a swath of fertile estuary known as the Biloxi Marsh.
All that freshwater combined with high water temperatures in the Gulf to turn a normally nurturing environment against the oyster.
“Oysters are very resilient, they’re amazing really, but when you have these combinations of events, they can only hold on so long,” Bourque said. “For some of these areas, they’re producing close to zero oysters.”
Everyone in the local seafood business says November can’t come soon enough. By the middle of next month, oyster experts believe production will increase in areas farther to the west of the Mississippi River that saw less freshwater flowing through them. Oysters from Texas may pick up some of the slack for southeast Louisiana’s missed production as well.
Still, there’s no missing that the state’s normally prodigious oyster supply is scraping bottom this season.
Ed McIntyre, who runs five locations of Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar & Fish House, has been able to keep a limited supply of oysters in his shuckers’ hands each day. But they run out early, so he’s had to redeploy idle shuckers to other duties in the kitchens.
“I’m trying to keep the team together to get guys through this,” McIntyre said.
In the fall, his restaurants usually go through 500 to 600 sacks of oysters a week. Lately he’s been lucky to get 200 sacks, assembling the haul from different dealers.
“Anything we get, it’s 10 sacks here, five there, five there. I’m constantly on the phone trying to make it happen,” McIntyre said.
The impact will likely be felt nationally, said Raz Halili, executive vice president of Prestige Oysters. His Texas-based company is one of the largest private leaseholders of Louisiana oyster beds and supplies restaurants across the country. These days he doesn’t have good news when his customers call.
“To be honest, it’s grim. I don’t see a good season for Louisiana at all,” he said. “We really got killed by that freshwater inflow.”
There are other options to keep oysters on the menu, including so-called “pillow packs,” or cases of packaged frozen oysters. These are suitable for frying and other cooked preparations. Seeing warning signs of a bad season to come, some restaurants began stocking up on frozen supplies.
But oysters on the half shell, the fullest and most delicate expression of the local oyster, require fresh, in-shell product. That’s why the shortage has shown up most noticeably at oyster bars.
While Louisiana has struggled, fresh oysters remain available from other parts of the Gulf. That includes the specialty farmed oysters that have established a niche at some New Orleans restaurants.
Sometimes called “off bottom oysters” or “cultivated oysters,” these are grown in floating enclosures, rather than harvested from reefs like traditional Gulf oysters. At anywhere from two to three times the price of the familiar Gulf oyster, they’re prized for the diversity of flavors they bring.
At Peche Seafood Grill, for instance, the oyster bar is serving a changing array of three or four different types of these specialty oysters, mostly from Alabama producers. Supply has remained steady, said Ryan Prewitt, the restaurant’s chef, but the conventionally grown oysters Peche normally serves beside them are often absent.
“It kills me to run an oyster list that doesn’t have Louisiana oysters on it,” Prewitt said. “The experience is supposed to be the diversity of flavors we can experience across them all.”
What’s more worrisome, he said, is the long-range prognosis for the state’s oyster production. The industry may be dealing with the havoc of this year’s freshwater influx long into the future.
“We’ve been hearing the warning bells on this all summer when the spillway was open,” he said. “What if they have to open the spillway next year too?”
This year marked the first time the Bonnet Carre Spillway was opened twice in the same year, and it set a new record for the number of days it was kept open. It was also the first time the spillway had been opened in two consecutive years.
Experts have attributed the increasing rain and rising water levels that led to its use to climate change.
“If this continues, we’ll still have oysters, but we won’t have the volumes that we shipped out for years and years and years,” said Jim Gossen, a veteran of the local seafood business and chairman of the Gulf Seafood Foundation.
Gossen has been an advocate of nascent efforts to develop more “off bottom” oyster cultivation in Louisiana, where several farms now operate around Grand Isle. He sees the potential for oyster farmers to diversify their business, and in theory, this method could also allow producers to move their oyster crop as water conditions change. Still, he said, that is far from a quick fix.
“One of the advantages of aquaculture is you can go where the water is best, but you can’t just up and go. It can take years to get the leases in order,” Gossen said.
The state has initiatives in place to help replenish oyster stock, transferring oysters from other areas to induce spawning and restart reefs. But it can take up to two years for Gulf oysters to grow to market size.
Bourque, with the state’s oyster program, said it is too soon to predict what a future season might bring for the areas that are struggling now.
“One thing we have to do is watch closely to make sure the areas that are producing don’t get depleted,” she said. “There’s a lot of demand for oysters now, but you have to leave enough to keep the populations going.”
Prices for oysters have spiked. Cvitanovich said he’s paying 20 percent more for oyster sacks compared to this time last year.
“We haven’t passed that increase on the customer, we’re absorbing it still, but I don’t know how long we can do it,” he said. “I am very concerned that the price of oysters has reached the ceiling and that they’ll stop being what they’ve always been, something everyone can enjoy here. You’re starting to get to the price of lobster and prime steak.”
Still, Cvitanovich said he tries to keep this season’s woes in context. If the spillway hadn’t diverted all the water it did, he points out, New Orleans might have faced more than an oyster shortage.
“Whatever we’re dealing with now,” he said, “all of these problems are better than if I have water in front of my restaurant.”