For the first time since the state’s oyster harvesting areas were closed for safety after Hurricane Ida, fresh Louisiana oysters are back on local menus.
But a return to pre-Ida supply levels is likely in months, according to Mitch Jurisich, an Empire-area oyster grower and restaurateur, who is also chair of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force.
“It will be months before the oyster farmers and fishermen in western Plaquemines and other places further west return to normal,” Jurisich said. “We’re a few weeks away from having a good supply.”
As of Friday, only seven of the 28 oyster-farming areas along the Louisiana coast had been reopened for harvest by the Louisiana Department of Health, including five on the east bank of the Mississippi River in Orleans, in the parishes of St. Bernard and de Plaquemines, and two on the west bank near Empire at Plaquemines.
The limited number of health department inspectors available to sample the oyster beds and the oysters themselves, if necessary, is slowing this process. The Louisiana agency has up to 10 employees who perform inspectors at any given time, which is actually far more than any other state that practices oyster harvesting, said Justin Gremillion, who oversees the testing program. oysters.
The agency follows guidelines set by the National Shellfish Sanitation Program to determine whether oysters are free from contaminants like sewage or pollutants. These guidelines could also help speed up demining of remaining areas where there are no clear sources of pollutants, he said.
âIf the waters return to normal temperatures for this time of year, to normal salinity levels, you can count that after 21 days of life an oyster can purge itself. Theoretically, after 21 days some areas will be able to reopen without sampling and everything will be fine, âsaid Gremillion. This would not include areas where there have been reports of pollutants, he stressed.
But health approvals are only the first step for oyster farmers in what should be a very slow recovery process. Oyster farmers living in parishes most affected by Ida are suffering damage to their homes, businesses and boats. All of them add to the time it takes to get oysters into restaurants.
The raw bar menu at Sidecar Patio & Oyster Bar is as detailed as a wine list and reads like a love letter to the world of oysters, to routine …
âThe oysters were very, very difficult to obtain,â said Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of Drago’s seafood restaurant at Six Locations. âOn Monday, the Louisiana oysters came back into the pipeline and we were able to serve fresh oysters on Tuesday. Obviously, they were a bit more expensive. But that’s the end of the good news.
Paul Rotner, general manager of the Acme Oyster House chain, agreed.
âThe biggest challenge after every storm is always availability,â he said. Its chain uses 8 million fresh oysters and fried an additional 3.5 million per year. After power was restored to New Orleans and other Acme sites after Ida, the chain turned to Virginia oysters for a time to fill the void.
On Friday, Acme was again serving Louisiana oysters in three of the regions that were reopened by the Department of Health.
“In a week, you can spend 150 bags of oysters in a restaurant, but with the storm, business has slowed down, especially in the French Quarter,” Rotner said, as well as in Metairie, Baton Rouge and even in his Texas. restaurant.
âThe state immediately closes all beds in the event of sewers and whatnot, for basic precautionary reasons. We expect this after every storm, âhe said. But with Nicholas following Ida so closely, this process was further delayed.
Once an oyster farmer returns to the water, there is still a lot of work to do before harvest begins. In a number of places overrun by the powerful central Ida storm, with winds close to 150mph, the two “floats” – floating swamp grasses – and the mud in which it was rooted eventually covered the walls. growing oysters.
Producers will need to determine which areas are hard hit and attempt to remove the worst of the mud and grass to ensure their oysters don’t suffocate before they are harvested in the weeks and months to come.
All of the same issues affecting commercial oyster farmers have also slowed the efforts of the state’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to clear the 1.7 million acres of public oyster beds. These oyster beds, once opened, will be the subject of captures of bags of oysters grown by commercial fishermen and, just as importantly, of spat or âspatâ oysters, which producers capture and move into their own parks. oysters to create new cultures.
“The problem is, Hurricane Ida was so powerful that it was not only a natural disaster, but also a disaster for all of our employees, for our public buildings,” said Carolina Bourque, program manager. of oysters for the wildlife agency. âWe have employees who are still trying to fight with their insurance companies, or who are still out of town, waiting for the power to be restored. “
The good news for public beds, she said, is that there appears to be a mix of areas where no damage was caused by the storm, with some areas experiencing the same coating of mud and grass. than on private leases.
âWe haven’t sampled all the reefs yet, especially in the parishes of Terrebonne and Lafourche,â said Bourque. “But I expect we will still have a decent oyster season if the dealers in the area are able to recoup their electricity and begin operations.”
The state has also already started collecting information to seek a federal declaration of emergency on fishing, which could provide federal funds over the next two years to add tumbling – rocks and shells that oysters can. use as anchors – both on state public oyster beds and private leases.
One of the hardest-hit oyster farmer subsets is a member of the new ‘alternative oyster farming’ industry, about six producers who have established above-bottom caged oyster farms in the sea. Barataria Bay, just north of Grand Isle, said Earl Melancon, a Louisiana Sea Grant biologist and oyster expert.
âWhether big or small, most of them have lost all of their cages and oysters,â he said. âYou would expect a lot of desperation, rightly after the hurricane hit, if they were to get back into the industry. But I am amazed at their resilience. They will all try to come back and that’s a good sign.
Oyster-bottom oyster culture efforts are in part aimed at finding alternatives for traditional bottom-growing areas that might be made too cool by the water from the Mississippi River used to provide sediment by the diversion of the Mid-Barataria sediments. proposed by the State.
But new producers have significant hurdles to overcome, Melancon said, as no current insurer in the state was willing to provide them with policies. Sea Grant is in the process of developing a grant proposal to identify better ways to anchor grow cages in the face of weather challenges, Melancon said. “But honestly, in the face of a Category 4 storm, it’s hard to say you could have a hardening that would handle something like this.”
For the oyster industry as a whole, a key question in its takeover of Ida is whether large oyster farms that contract with smaller producers to move their oysters to market will see those producers return. .
âMany workers and operators at the factory are homeless,â he said. “It will be a difficult climb for them to even have a sense of normalcy.”