Suppliers working overtime to keep up with oyster demand

River levels threatening oyster supply and affecting business

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - It’s prime oyster shucking season, and although the shellfish can be eaten just about any time of the year, “the colder the weather, the better oysters are,” says chef and part-owner of Phil’s Oyster Bar & Seafood Restaurant, Peter Sclafani.

However, the Bonnet Carré Spillway was opened twice in 2019 to lower the level of the Mississippi River. Chef Sclafani says that brought in nutrients and freshwater oysters didn’t need and it threatened the restaurant’s supply.

“That freshwater goes through some of the prime oyster bedding areas and it changes the salinity,” Sclafani said.

Sclafani adds that when the river slows down, the extra nutrients and freshwater create a toxic environment.

“When it slows down, it causes algae,” Sclafani explained. “You get algae bloom and then algae mixes with the saltwater and it dies. When it dies, it starts to decompose. Then it sucks all of the oxygen out of the water and it creates dead zones. Fish and shrimp can swim out of the way, oysters can’t.”

Oysters tightened up in every sense of the word, making it almost impossible for restaurants to keep up with customer demand.

“We’ve been able to stay on top of it, but I’m not going to tell you we don’t get nervous sometimes because oysters are really tight. The price has gone up,” he said.

Sclafani says they don’t plan on passing that price on to the customer though. He says normally, they pay less than $50 per sack and right now, they’re well above that level.

“It’s been tight. Gallons are the same thing. Gallons have gone up more than 50% if you can get them," he said.

“The last time oysters got this hard to get it was, actually, I’ve never seen it this hard,” said Wayne Hess with American Seafood Incorporated. “It’s second right up under opening up after Katrina and having to restart a business. It’s been relentless, hours after hours.”

Hess adds that crews sometimes make two or three trips per day across the state to find market size oysters.

American Seafood Incorporated is a wholesale distributor for several restaurants in New Orleans. Hess says they’ve been working overtime to keep up.

“I’m able to keep my customers going, not full steam, but everybody still having oysters to sell," he said.

Suppliers say this shortage isn’t out of the ordinary, but the warm temperatures make it hard for oyster farmers to harvest market size fish because if they bother the beds, it could kill the smaller ones.

“As the oysters grow, it gets to harvesting size, they start harvesting,” Hess explained. “They’re at the end of the season as far as what they can harvest. The rest of the oysters are either immature or dead. They don’t want to try and go in the beds and harvest oysters where they’re immature to try and get some market size oysters because they end up killing baby oysters.”

Suppliers expect everything to be back to normal in November. However, Hess says it could be up to two years before the oyster supply recovers completely.

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