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The oyster is their world, but oil spill threatens it

In Louisiana, acres of mollusk beds are off-limits, setting off a chain of devastating events — starting with the oysterman.

July 17, 2010|By P.J. Huffstutter, Nicole Santa Cruz and Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Los Angeles and the Gulf Coast — Laurentino Cardenas leaned over the edge of his narrow boat, his hands clenched above the murky green surface of the Gulf of Mexico's Bayou Terrebonne. The name means "good earth" in French, and it has indeed been good to Louisiana.

Oystermen like Cardenas have long scraped the gulf's floor, clinging to metal rakes as the oysters cling to reefs, with a determination that has allowed them to survive nature's wrath and man's mistakes. Until now.

The BP oil spill is killing off a centuries-old way of life, and endangering one of the world's largest wild oyster systems. Businesses nationwide have been hurt or destroyed because Cardenas and his peers can't work. Along the way, the oyster has become a barometer of the crisis' economic reach and a portent of long-term effects.

Louisiana's 1.6 million acres of public oyster beds, and more than half of its 400,000 privately leased acres, are off-limits. Hundreds of oystermen have stopped fishing. Processors have shut down. Gulf restaurants have closed, and chains such as Red Lobster have yanked the briny morsels off their menus. What supplies remain have more than doubled in price, with some restaurateurs paying $200 for a 150-count case.

That's just the beginning. Scientists fear generations of larvae and mollusks could be wiped out, destroying harvests for years. The cruelest twist: Oyster beds that survived the now-capped gusher could be leveled by the cleanup efforts.

After the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion April 20, Louisiana officials decided to use Mississippi River water to push back the encroaching oil. Culverts built into the river's levee system were opened, redirecting fresh water into salt-water estuaries. The resulting change in salinity can be fatal to the mollusks.

Last week, state scientists started checking beds. Their early findings: a wide spread of dead oysters.

"There's a lot of talk that this is killing off the gulf oyster industry, that after [Hurricane] Katrina and this, it's the end," said Bill Sieleg, who heads a Maryland-based oyster trade group.

Oysters are a $1-billion domestic industry and a culinary aberration: Most seafood that Americans eat is imported. But oysters, with their heavy shells, are expensive to ship by air. They're also considered best eaten fresh, not frozen. So the majority of oysters we eat come from U.S. coasts, two-thirds of which are trucked from warm gulf waters.

Oysters were long a European treat for the rich. But it was in Louisiana where this simple bivalve — mild in flavor and traditionally cheap enough for almost anyone to buy a platter — was reclaimed as the Everyman mollusk. Grocers across the country stocked mounds of Crassostrea virginica, allowing cooks to whip up oyster dressing at Thanksgiving.

The oyster is to Louisiana what corn is to Iowa or oranges to Florida — part sustenance, part identity. The ingenuity of the region's chefs turned out oyster fritters, oysters Bienville and oyster po' boys. They gave birth to oysters Rockefeller, reportedly named after oil baron John D. Rockefeller — the only thing richer than the sauce.

So in this state, the loss strikes like a bomb.

"Oysters are part of everyone's upbringing. It's family history," said Susan Spicer, a prominent New Orleans chef who is suing BP for the loss of local seafood supplies. "It's unthinkable, a future without them."

At Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar, on a brick-lined stretch of the French Quarter in New Orleans, the menu proclaimed that it "only serves LOUISIANA oysters." Owner John Rotonti can't bring himself to print a correction; home-grown oysters were the heart of his business. He wrestled with a disquieting truth: Felix's was slowly changing from a gulf restaurant into one that's simply on the gulf.

"It's like part of the restaurant is gone," he said.

Rotonti is using Texas and Florida oysters. His manager called Connecticut to do the unthinkable: buy Blue Point oysters from the cold waters of the Atlantic — iconic of New England chowder and the Kennedys, not of Creole spice and the soft drawl of the Deep South.

But he may not get them. Many farmers in the Northeast, Northwest and California have sold their harvests. There are also fewer to buy. It's not clear why, but the ocean waters off Washington state and Oregon are changing: As much as 60% of larvae in area hatcheries have died in recent years. On the East Coast, in the Chesapeake Bay, beds are recovering from overfishing, disease and pollution.

Americans willing to settle for smoked or canned oysters are in luck. Firms in Asia, which dominate that market, assure that holiday supplies will be plentiful.

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