"Absolutely. Oyster prices in the coming months will be the highest ever and they will be higher every year after this one," said Jim Harris, president of Blue Point Oyster Bar Co., a Los Angeles-based firm which specializes in the Gulf Coast species of the shellfish. "What was traditionally a renewable resource is becoming a non-renewable one."
Driving the increases at dockside and retail are coinciding declines in the harvest of both Maryland's Eastern oyster and those from the Gulf States. For instance, Louisiana, the country's leading producer, is in the second year of a sharp downturn.
The pricing volatility is likely to be acute in Southern California, which has become a major market for these salty shellfish. One reason for the growth is oysters' emerging popularity in all types of restaurants--beyond just those specializing in seafood.
"Let me put it this way: Demand for our Gulf product, alone, has quadrupled in the last 18 months," said Harris, whose company has trademarked the Blue Point Oyster brand as a means of establishing a premium seafood line in what is traditionally a non-label-conscious industry.
Despite more calls for the product, Harris finds it difficult to fill existing orders.
His major source, Louisiana, is troubled by increasing salt levels in the brackish bayous and tributaries of the Mississippi River, where the oyster beds are traditionally found. The drought-fueled salinity has created a hostile, foreign environment for oyster spawning. And as the fresh-water levels drop, the concentration of industrial pollutants also increases.
"Basically, we have the same problems as the Chesapeake," said Ron Dugas, a marine biologist with the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries department. "In the last two years there was no fresh-water input (in the many areas normally served by the Mississippi), and this animal doesn't like to live in areas that are not suitable for its growth."
Dugas said Louisiana's 1987 oyster harvest is likely to be one of the lowest in this century. He projects that the state will be fortunate to yield 10 million pounds of shucked oyster meat, down 28% from 1985's 14-million-pound level. (Louisiana uses the shucked-meat calculation to gauge total production even though much of the harvest is shipped in the shell.)
Lack of desirable water quality has taken a harsh toll on Louisiana's oyster. The state has more than 2 million acres of river, Gulf coast and tributaries that were at one time designated as public oyster beds. This year, less than 100,000 acres of that total is actually producing edible shellfish.
"We have seen a lot of oyster people who have been traditionally in this business that are looking for a way out," Dugas said. "We have started to see 'For Sale' signs on oyster boats and on some of the shucking houses."
As a result of the drop, the Louisiana oyster industry has begun farming the shellfish as a means of survival. Now, more than 280,000 acres of water are being worked under so-called private leases.
"This is not a doomsday thing," Dugas said. "The salinity levels that we have now are extremely rare for Louisiana. At some point, we will return to normal conditions and at that time go back to additional production. But the problem is that sometime Mother Nature gives and sometimes she takes away. Right now, she's taking away."