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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

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'Grim' oyster season brings new tactics for oyster bars

'Grim' oyster season brings 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."

By the middle of this 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.

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."


Information from: The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate,