by Springfield Lewis/Louisiana Seafood News
In the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, Louisiana’s oyster community continues working to get its business back to normal – and progress is being made in many areas.
In some parts of the state, however, farmers and harvesters still are trying to assess storm damage to oyster beds and dig out as the seasonal harvest begins this month.
After testing for bacteria and other contaminants, all of the state’s oyster areas along and near the Gulf Coast and bays were cleared and reopened by state health officials.
The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals said “all of Louisiana’s active oyster harvest areas are operational, except for small segments of Area 12 that have been closed since the 2010 spill.”
The issue for hard-hit areas – such as Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Jefferson and Lafourche parishes – is determining the full extent of the damage to oyster beds caused by debris and silt that can suffocate oysters, said Mike Voisin, a member of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission
Outcome Generally Good
Despite Isaac’s large-scale destruction in certain places, the outcome for the state’s oyster industry is generally good, according to Voisin, who’s also chief executive of Motivatit Seafoods – one of America’s largest oyster processors based in Houma, Louisiana.
His two processing plants, which both lost electricity during the August 28th storm, came back on line within a day or two. Oysters soon started arriving to get the fresh seafood market going again.
All along, he said oyster farmers and harvesters have worked together with agency officials – from the precautionary closing of the oyster areas before the storm and right on through to testing water samples twice in impacted areas, as well as ongoing cleanup and reopening of oyster beds or reefs.
The timing of the reopening couldn’t be better, said Voisin. “Oysters are back on the menu for September, the kick-off of oyster season.”
LA Oysters – $350 Million Industry
That’s good news for Louisiana, where about 10,000 people make a living from the state’s $350-million oyster industry – from harvesting oysters to processing them to serving the shellfish in local restaurants.
Normally, the state produces 250 million pounds of in-shell oysters a year, which are served locally, sold across the U.S. and shipped around the world
The reopening was especially well-timed for the Louisiana Seafood Restaurant Week, which happened earlier this month. One of the 30+ participating eateries was Drago’s Seafood Restaurant, advertised as “home of the original charbroiled oysters.”
“Here at Drago’s, we prepare oysters in many ways,” said owner Tommy Cvitanovich. “Our legendary way is charbroiled, with our butter-garlic sauce and cheese. They are the single, best bite of food in our city. Customers consume them by the dozens.”
On a busy day, he said Drago’s can go through more than 100 sacks of oysters at its two New Orleans area restaurants.
“That’s more than 1,500 dozens of fresh Louisiana oysters. So, it’s a relief to have fresh-market oysters.”
Millions of Acres Harvested
Traditionally, the heaviest producer of Louisiana oysters was in the eastern Mississippi River area, said Voisin, an eighth-generation oysterman.
“But, given the challenges of Deepwater Horizon and other issues, the Terrebone Parish, which is the area between Bayou Lafourche and the Atchafalaya River, has been the most productive recently.”
There are about 1.6 million acres of public oyster grounds managed by the state of Louisiana, the nation’s top oyster producer, he said.
Another 400,000 acres are under private leases worked by oyster farmers, added Voisin, whose family-run business has a 12,000-acre oyster farm. Unlike the public grounds, these farms are open year-round for oyster harvesting.
Relief Help Needed
Voisin expects oyster farmers and harvesters will be looking for clean-up funds from federal agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
They’ll probably also seek help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to repair damaged “fencing,” poles that mark off oyster farms and were knocked down by high water and winds.
“We feel bad about any delays in production,” said Voisin. “But, we want to be sure we’re producing a safe, high-quality product – which we always do.”