By Graham Andreae
The Chesapeake Bay is known for a lot of things, but chief among them is Oysters. Crabs are also to a greater extent the fish of the bay, but oysters as well. Residents of the Chesapeake Bay drainage area feel closely connected to the oyster as it was a large part of growing up in the area. However, like New Orleans’ oysters- though in a different way-the industry is dying. It takes around two years for an oyster to reach the age of adulthood, which is about two inches in size. This is all to say that New Orleans is not alone in its struggle to keep marine fisheries alive, but it is unique. That was my oyster, but this story is about New Orleans. The Orleans Parish Oyster is as unique as the place that most exemplifies the oyster industry in Louisiana.
Pascale Manale’s is one of the oldest and most prestigious oyster houses in the city, which is saying something considering the sheer number of oyster houses that exist in Orleans Parish. It is here that you get a real sense of the oysters in New Orleans. Walking into the place brings with it the subtle smell of shell mixed with freshwater. You can practically feel the salt in the air. Thomas “Uptown T” as he is called, is the stone wall that greets those who want raw oysters on the half-shell. He talks and serves with equal poise juggling questions along with orders. This is the epitome of oysters in New Orleans.
The question to ask about watermen, oysters, and the community that surrounds them is not “what does it mean to New Orleans?” The question is, “will it see the next twenty years? And if so, how?” An anonymous source had much to say about his experience with the industry in the last twenty years.
“It’s night and day, It’s done a one hundred eighty in twenty years,” he said, “because of coastal erosion”
There is an effort, of late, to stave off coastal erosion as well as provide other means of reaping oysters for a vibrant, but struggling industry in the Mexican Gulf.
Pristine oyster communities, such as those in St. Bernard Parish, were decimated in recent years due to crevasses caused by the levees. (Crevasses that were on the east side of the Mississippi River south of New Orleans.) These reefs were considered to be some of the best in the world in terms of their productivity. They are often called the primary public oyster grounds numbering in about a million acres of water bottoms. Oyster grounds which are now dormant.
What the proposed solution, which has popular appeal, is to farm oysters away from reefs. This solution is mired by the fact that this is not the only problem present in oyster harvesting. There is another specter lingering: disease and parasites, which have ravaged oyster populations on top of harvesting and destruction of habitat.
This brings us to the next issue that the oyster industry faced: the BP oil spill. “I remember sitting with my neighbor and seein’ it on the news,” said an executive, remembering the day the story broke, “and there were eleven people that were killed in the explosion-and I said ‘this is gonna be very bad’.” He stated that the weather systems in the area coupled with the oil itself and where the oil was coming from made the situation all the more dangerous. There was a significant concern that this would push up into the all too critical marshland.
This was just another layer to add to the increasingly dire situation for the Louisiana oyster.
“you grow oysters in cages. Florida has built a relatively solid start for oyster farming, Alabama has some active farms, and only recently has LA been trying to get in the game,” a professor of Ecology at Louisiana State University, Megan La Peyre, said of off reef growth as an option.
So assuming that we do farm oysters and the situation remains largely unchanged there seems to be a change in the way in which we buy oysters.
When asked what the future of oysters in New Orleans was an anonymous executive had this to say, “It’s not going to be what it has been Pre-BP Oil…because were not managing properly the freshwater that would happen with our typical river-marine system-it doesn’t allow the oysters to have brackish water. It’s either too fresh or too salty.”
The salinity levels according to the study done by the LSU doctoral candidates disagrees with these findings however, indicating that, on their test sites, the salinity levels remained relatively the same.
In finishing, the executive saw things like what these students were proposing as the future of the oyster saying, “If I had a crystal ball you’re gonna be growing-they’re gonna do it like they do on the east coast, and have been doin in the northeast, and have started around fifteen years ago in the Chesapeake…in cages. It’s more of a niche market where they’re very expensive and people can’t afford it. Just regular people can’t afford it. It’s gonna be more high end restaurants.” In short the “oyster poor boy” may no longer be for “poor boys”, and data on oyster beds holds fast indicating, according to La Peyre, that 85% of oyster reefs globally are functionally extinct. This is not to say that there is no hope for the oyster, the Oyster Po’Boy will live to see another day, but it makes one think what would happen were it not for farming efforts.