« January 2011 Table of Contents
Special Feature: Oysters
BP oil spill fallout cripples Gulf oyster production, shifts demand
By Lauren Kramer
January 05, 2011
The Gulf oil spill had a devastating effect on the region's
oyster crop, destroying between 10 and 20 percent of the 250
million pounds of the bivalve traditionally produced by the
state of Louisiana, according to John Tesvich, managing partner
at Ameripure in Franklin, La., and chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force.
But for oyster processors, oil contamination was never a
problem. The problem, says Pat Fahey, Tesvich's partner, was
the freshwater diversions initiated by the state to keep oil
out of the estuaries, coupled with the closures of areas
containing oyster beds and the public perception of oil-tainted
seafood. The impact of those effects will ricochet within the
industry for the next two to four years,
"We're dealing with a very emaciated supply of oysters right
now," says Fahey, whose company halted operations from June
through November due to inconsistent supply. "Throughout the
period of the oil spill, certain areas were opened and closed
depending on prevailing observations on where the oil might be.
BP hired most of the available vessels that would otherwise
have been harvesting oysters from areas that were still viable.
And as the freshwater diversion projects pumped millions
gallons of water from the Mississippi into the Gulf, the
salinity levels of our water changed, resulting in massive
Louisiana lost 80 percent of the oysters that would have
otherwise been harvested between May and October, says Mike
Voisin, CEO of Motivatit Seafoods, an oyster processor in
Houma, La. The company markets the Gold Band brand of
high-pressure processed oysters.
"But pricing went up, which meant our sales were only down
by about 25 percent," says Voisin. Oyster prices in the Gulf,
because of Texas production, have gone down about 15 to 25
percent to $30 for bushel-and-a-half sacks, he says. Louisiana
will produce only half of its traditional annual production
over the next couple of years as a result of the oil spill,
with the real shortages occurring during summer 2011 and 2012,
John Keswick, who co-owns Ameripure, has never seen the
demand for Gulf coast oysters as bad as it is right now.
"I'd say sales are 30 percent of what they used to be. We
can provide more oysters than the market demands," he says.
Public perception is to blame for that, and it's going to
take a few years to turn that image around, Fahey predicts.
"We have access to beautiful, abundant product coming out of
Texas, but when you're gone for five-and-a-half months, you
don't hit the ground
running. We were extremely busy up until
the oil spill. Now, we're cautiously optimistic. We hope for
the best, but we're prepared for the worst. We'll need to wait
a couple of years before we can successfully work our oysters
again. It's achievable, but it's a long road and it's too soon
to tell if we can see this through."
The oyster harvest in Texas opened in November and it's been
a good one, says Steve Hillman, VP at Hillman Shrimp & Oyster Co. in Dickinson, Texas. But demand for fresh oysters
has been down.
"That's strange for this time of year," he says. "The weeks
leading up to Thanksgiving are the time of highest demand for
fresh oysters and it's when a lot of the fresh guys sell most
of their product." Hillman attributes the decreased demand to
the public's perception that seafood from the Gulf Coast
Because his company has national accounts and specializes in
oysters frozen on the half-shell, the drop in demand has not
hurt sales much. "We're in good shape and our sales are up for
each of the past three years," he says. "Sure, the fresh market
has an impact on our business, but not as much as it would if
we were strictly a fresh oyster dealer."
Prices of the frozen halfshell product run about 50 percent
more than fresh Gulf oysters due to the additional processing
and packaging of the product, adds Hillman.
On the East Coast, the oil spill increased demand by 30
percent. "Prices have gone up at least 15 percent in the last
six months," says Tom Ahearn, who heads the Rhode Island sales
office for J.P.'s Shellfish, based in Eliot, Maine. The company
specializes in C rassostrea virginica oysters from the
Northeast, New England, New York and the Canadian Maritimes.
between 60 cents and a $1 per oyster.
"We're fortunate in being able to draw from all those
regions, but still, it's been a challenge with increasing
demand," he says.
Likewise, Pemaquid Oyster Co. in Waldoboro, Maine, has
struggled to meet demand. "It's a good problem to have and it's
fairly true for most growers in Maine," says Chris Davis,
company partner, adding that Pemaquid raised its oyster prices
7 percent in the past year.
But Davis does not believe the increase in demand for
oysters is related to the Gulf oil spill. "The Gulf
really serves the shucked market," he says. "I think our high
demand for oysters on the half-shell is because people in Maine
are recognizing we have a great product and more people want
This past year Pemaquid had a 40 percent oyster mortality
rate as a result of the oyster pathogen MSX, or multinucleated
sphere unknown disease. "This was an unusually warm year and it
may have been environmental conditions that allowed the disease
to do its dirty work," he speculates. "We'll be using a
disease-resistant stock in the future."
In the Pacific Northwest, the BP oil spill did not
significantly impact oyster sales at Taylor Shellfish in
Shelton, Wash. "The size of oysters we had available at the
time of the spill
was too big for the market," says VP Bill
Taylor. Oyster sales have been healthy and prices have
remained stable. Wholesale prices for medium shucked oysters
in the fall were $36 per gallon, small were $38 and extra
oysters sold for $40 per
gallon. But the
company's oyster larvae production
has been down as a
of adverse water
conditions linked to ocean acidification [see
Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British