Monday August 16, 2010
Blame it on BP.
About 70 percent of oysters eaten in the U.S. are fished out of the marshes, bayous and bays along the Gulf Coast – primarily in Louisiana.
But after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in April, state and federal officials closed thousands of miles of tidal coastline.
The results are now washing ashore in Dallas and around the nation.
"Sorry!!! No Oysters. Thank You, BP..." reads a sign at the Sea Breeze Fish Market & Grill in Plano.
"Our price quadrupled, and nobody wants to pay four times the price for oysters that aren't as good," Richard Wood, a manager in the restaurant's fish market, said Wednesday.
"We have other sources, but they're not full-flavored like the ones that come out of the gulf."
At the Ranch at Las Colinas (formerly Cadillac Ranch), executive chef Troy Walker stopped offering fried oysters – a top seller – because of high prices, dwindling supply and inconsistent quality.
"They just got hard to get," he said.
The restaurant also dropped another popular item, mahi-mahi, and switched from fresh to farm-raised redfish.
More than 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States – and almost 90 percent of shrimp – is imported, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But when it comes to oysters, the Gulf of Mexico is king.
"We used to pay $21.50 for a 100-pound sack," said Gustavo Santana, general manager of the Flying Fish at Preston Center. "Now it's about $36.
"We plan on increasing the price a couple dollars for our customers, but we can't expect them to pay 80 percent more, especially when they're used to gulf oysters."
Red Lobster recently pulled oysters from its menus across the country. Another famous restaurant – P&J Oyster Co. in the French Quarter in New Orleans – stopped shucking in June.
Other restaurants have raised prices, started serving oysters from the East and West Coast, or both.
Santana said his restaurant plans to lift its two-month suspension of oysters on the half-shell Friday. He said they'll cost $10.50 a dozen instead of $8.50.
The price spike could last as long as two years – the time it takes gulf oysters to grow to a harvestable size of 3 inches.
But Texas oystermen may discover a pearl in the shortage when public reefs open for fishing on Nov. 1.
Texas is the Gulf Coast's second-leading producer of oysters.
In 2007, the state produced 5.8 million pounds of oyster meat, nearly double Florida's production at 2.9 million pounds, but less than half of Louisiana's 12.9 million-pound catch.
And though Texas' reefs are still recovering from a pummeling by Hurricane Ike in September 2008, the increased demand may lead to higher prices for fishermen.
"It's a little bit like a door that swings both ways," said Lance Robinson, a wildlife biologist and regional director for Texas Parks and Wildlife's upper coast. "A reduced supply from the gulf means that oysters that are harvested may command a little higher price."
The down side, he said, is that Galveston Bay – which produces 60 to 70 percent of the state's harvest – could be overfished.
The process of culling oysters off the reef inevitably damages and kills some animals, which sets back the next year's catch.
But Robinson said Texas fishermen may face an even larger problem this season.
Even though the state's shoreline and seafood escaped the oil spill unharmed, the public may have a bad taste in its mouth when it comes to this year's catch.
"All the stuff coming out of the gulf is being tested by the FDA," said Robinson. "The seafood is safe, but the problem is that early on in the oil spill, some of the national news outlets, and even some of the dealers on the East Coast, were telling people not to eat any seafood from the Gulf of Mexico."
Wood, the manager at the Sea Breeze Fish Market and Grill, said he hears the concerns every day. Customers ask whether the restaurant's seafood was caught in the gulf. One even quipped, "Can I have a side order of petroleum with that?"
Sammy Ray, a 91-year-old oyster pathologist and professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, described the oil spill as a calamity but said consumers, restaurants and the ecosystem will survive.
"From the standpoint of oysters, I think the recovery will be much quicker than people think," he said. "People keep comparing this oil spill to Exxon Valdez, but they don't realize that was cold water. There are a lot of bugs out in the gulf that will be eating on that oil in warm weather."
Many consumers may not even notice the oyster shortage, he said, as supplies fill in from other parts of the country and world. Even the price spike may not register.
Geronimo Vercin of Dallas considered his plate Wednesday at Aw Shucks Oyster Bar on Greenville Avenue.
"They seemed smaller than they used to be," he said. "I don't know if that's because it's a different company or what."
Nearby, Jim Gearwood of Garland came to a different conclusion. "I eat 12 dozen oysters every week," he said. "No problem."