In the early days of the BP oil spill, customers flooded into Acme Oyster House restaurants for what chief operations officer Lucien Gunter calls the “Last Supper syndrome.” They ate fresh seafood and oysters like there was no tomorrow for the Gulf, which seemed like a distinct possibility at the time.
But after the boom came the bust.
At 100 days into the spill, business was off by 18 percent. Since the well was capped, the numbers are improving, but they’re still down about 10 percent, Gunter says.
Gunter is reconciling those numbers with another set: Sacks of oysters have hit an all-time high — as much as $58 per sack, which is more than double the $24 sack of last year. The five restaurants in the Acme family plow through 80,000 sacks a year. You do the math.
As bleak as the economic realities are, Gunter is cautiously optimistic about the current Louisiana Gulf oyster supply. Although he has had to cast a wider net to find Gulf oysters to supply the restaurants, looking to Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to supplement, Gunter says that the majority — at least 70 percent of the oysters served at Acme today — come from Louisiana coastal waters.
“We have 30 different zones to harvest from across the state. If a few areas in the East are closed, we still have a lot of zones we can harvest from,” Gunter says.
Gunter is also keeping an eye on Sabine Lake, situated on the border of Texas and Louisiana southwest of Lake Charles. Sabine Lake has been closed to oystering for more than five years, and by some estimates, it holds more than 450,000 sacks of marketable oysters and at least 425,000 sacks of seed oysters that will mature in two to three years.
Those numbers are encouraging, but whether it’s sales, supplies or prices, numbers don’t tell the real story — the one that really worries Gunter. Having lived through the trauma and recovery of Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav and witnessed the slow, painful comeback of fishermen after complete financial ruin, Gunter worries most about the oystermen.
“It’s not the two years that it’ll take the oyster beds to recover,” says Gunter, acknowledging that the freshwater diversions that killed the beds were the “better enemy” that kept waves of oil away from coating Louisiana’s coastline.
“It’s making sure the fisherman stay motivated and have the funds to survive and for the seeding process,” Gunter says. “If these guys get disillusioned and their financial burden from the spill is so cumbersome that they can’t do their job, the loss will be incalculable.”