Despite all that man and nature have thrown at the Louisiana oyster in recent months and years, Sal Sunseri is as optimistic as ever when he talks about the festival that shows off his pride and joy.
Last year's inaugural New Orleans Oyster Festival attracted 10,000 attendees to the French Quarter event site and raised $20,000 for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation's coastal rehabilitation programs. That was an amazing result, coming as it did on a hot weekend in June — typically not an "oyster month" — and as the Gulf oil disaster threatened Louisiana's oyster beds.
This year, oysters continue to face the oil threat — along with a new problem: massive infusions of diverted Mississippi River water. Undaunted, Sunseri says the show must go on. "You don't just stop eating oysters," he says, adding the festival will dispel any notion that the industry is on its way out.
The second annual festival will be held this weekend, June 4-5, from 11:45 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the Berger Parking Lot in the 500 block of Decatur Street. The event features shucking and eating contests, live music and oyster dishes from 20 restaurants. "What we're about is celebrating the oyster farmers and restaurateurs who've created the oyster capital of America," Sunseri says. "We want to present that bigger and better every year."
Sunseri's P&J Oyster Company trimmed its operations last June in the aftermath of the oil disaster. BP has since argued that last year's freshwater diversions were the state's decision and not the company's fault. BP refuses to pay to repair and reseed damaged beds. Sunseri says BP should be responsible for replanting those beds.
Only a handful of employees pack and deliver for P&J today, and the company still isn't shucking. P&J also has turned to Texas for a steady supply of oysters, which it has done in past seasons when demand runs high, particularly in oyster-popular winter months. Sunseri notes that the festival — for now — will serve only local oysters.
"We're presenting the Louisiana oyster, first and foremost," he says. "We are the largest producers of oysters in America. Of course the freshwater has affected certain areas, but we'll find the areas that have not been affected."
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has estimated the state's oyster production dropped more than half from 2009 to 2010. "It'll be sporadic over the next few years for the production of oysters," Sunseri says. "We've been through a lot. Katrina, Ike, Gustav, BP, freshwater diversions, now this." He adds, however, that the industry anticipates a bounty in three years.
Sunseri and P&J have filed a lawsuit against BP. "We've never sued before. ... But that's what we have to do," he says. "We're not happy with the way they treated us, we're not happy with the way they treated the oyster industry. Who's more affected than us?" — Alex Woodward