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Lousiana’s Oystermen Hit the Hardest by Spill

If they can cover the time and fuel costs to get beyond the area closed by the BP oil blowout (granted, a big if), a shrimp captain or fishermen can keep their business going. Louisiana’s oyster farmers are in a much tougher position. Oysters, after all, are raised, not caught. They have to be grown under very specific conditions, places where the water temperature is just right and the mix of salt water and fresh water just so. With the oil slick creeping into the inlets of Louisiana’s coast, those special places risk destruction.

Even as some shrimp and fin fish continue to be offloaded onto the state’s docks, the Louisiana oyster industry – which accounts for about 40 percent of all the oysters consumed in the United States – is almost entirely shut down.

photo of oysters in shell, closeSamuel Rosa photo

“I normally have 400 to 500 boxes of oysters,” Cliff Hall, the head of sales at New Orleans Fish House, one of the city’s major seafood warehouses, told me Wednesday morning as I toured his refrigerated docks. “Today I’ve got 36 of them. Right now, for the rest of this week, all I’ll have is Texas oysters. You’re seeing wetlands that are unduplicatable being destroyed. And it trickles down to an entire culture. It’s unbelievably sad.”

I got a better sense of exactly how sad when I headed, on Hall’s recommendation, to P&J Oysters, a New Orleans institution that has been in business for more than 130 years. The company – which sells to some of the city’s top restaurants, like Galatoire’s and Arnaud’s – is housed in an old brick-and-masonry warehouse at the corner of Toulouse and Rampart streets, at the northeast edge of the French Quarter. The building where the oyster shuckers typically start work at 4:45 in the morning was built as a blacksmith shop in the 1880s; the adjacent offices are in a building from a century earlier that used to house a brothel. A building across the street, where the company plugs in its refrigerated trucks at night, was once a stable where Andrew Jackson kept his horses.

Company president Al Sunseri is proud to share that history – and uncertain what the future holds. “We have people that have worked together for generations,” he told me. “After this week …” There was a long pause as Sunseri gathered his thoughts. “We don’t know when we’ll be open again.”

Sunseri, who inherited the company from his father and grandfather, said that when he first heard about the Deepwater Horizon accident he didn’t think it would impact his business. “My first thought was, ‘what a terrible thing for those people.’ I didn’t think more about it because the Coast Guard and everyone said it would be limited.”

Then it became apparent that the disaster was spreading. “My concern grew and I began to hope and pray they would be able to close it off,” he said.

When that didn’t happen, state and federal officials closed most of the state’s oyster beds. The last time Sunseri received a shipment of oysters was on June 1. He said that in late May he was buying as many oysters as were available from the farmers he works with, “stackin’ ‘em up in the cooler and usin’ as much space as I could.”

He told me that he expects today (Thursday, June 10) to be the last day that he will have employees shucking oysters. He will likely make his last delivery of half-shell oysters on Friday. After that, he will have to lay off his 25 employees and give them the BP number for compensation claims. He’s pessimistic about seeing the oyster farms re-open anytime soon.

“Now the oil is making its way over the oyster-growin’ areas,” he told me. “We’re comin’ close to the end, unless they open up new areas, and I don’t see that happenin’.”

Sunseri said that he has filed a compensation claim with BP, and that company officials told him he would hear back from them in “two to three days.” That promise hasn’t been fulfilled.

“‘Kept whole’ to me means another generation being able to continue on,” he said. Sunseri’s 24-year-old son, Blake, has worked at the company full time for the past three years. He mostly works in the office, and sometimes on deliveries, and expects to take over the company someday. “Oyster water runs through our blood,” the older Sunseri told me.

When I asked him if he was angry at BP, Sunseri – an easy going fellow who often has a grin flirting with edges of his mouth – said there wasn’t much point in it. Hurricane Katrina, he told me, had taught him not to worry about things out of his control.

“I used to be highly stressed and I very much tried to control everything. But I learned after Katrina that I couldn’t control it. I came to the conclusion – you work real hard every you day and when you’re done for the day, you’re done. Worry about it is nothing more than wasted energy. You know, anger is another wasted energy. I feel helpless. I feel at the mercy of other people. Angry? No. Why? How am I going to deal with my frustration except to get my story out about the real impacts of this.

“We are just one of many stories.”

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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