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Pearl Jammed 

Slammed this year by hurricanes Gustav and Ike and facing the long-term effects of coastal erosion, local oyster farmers question whether this generations-old Louisiana industry can survive. DefenselessA Delicate Balance"Do we have the will as a nation?"

click to enlarge Drago Cvitanovich of Drago's picks through a harvest of oysters. Cvitanovich's two restaurants in New Orleans and Metairie serve thousands of the bivalves each week. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DRAGO'S RESTAURANT
  • Photo Courtesy of Drago's Restaurant
  • Drago Cvitanovich of Drago's picks through a harvest of oysters. Cvitanovich's two restaurants in New Orleans and Metairie serve thousands of the bivalves each week.
The oysters now coming into New Orleans restaurants are of extraordinary quality. They look fat on the half shell, taste salty and feel meaty in the mouth. Some on both sides of the oyster bar say these are the best they've seen local waters produce in a long time.

But such praise is cold comfort for many working the Louisiana oyster reefs and running the shoreside processing plants, because the question of quantity rather than quality is pressing on them now. While oysters are readily available across the market, this year has proved quietly disastrous for Louisiana oyster growers and has sown deep anxiety about the future among industry veterans.

Between high waters pouring through the state's estuaries last spring and the impacts of hurricanes Gustav and Ike in quick succession in September, as much as 50 percent of Louisiana oysters waiting to be harvested this year were killed in their beds. Losses for some individual oyster growers are as high as 70 percent of their expected harvest.

"We were right on the verge. We had such a great crop out there, then the storms came," says Mike Voisin, president of Houma-based Motivatit Seafoods, one of the state's largest oyster handlers. "When you're on the brink of a comeback, like we were from Katrina and Rita, it's like watching your horse about to win the race and then it all breaks down."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the industry in 2005, wrecking boats and facilities and smothering oysters under storm-driven mud and grass while also disrupting the salinity balance of their fertile, though delicate, habitat. But by 2008 the recovery was at full gallop. The oyster industry has been highly successful in securing federal relief, including almost half of the first $53 million distributed for hurricane recovery for all Louisiana seafood industries. This and substantial chunks of later government funding have helped the oystermen repair boats and infrastructure and repair and replant the limestone reefs on which oysters grow. Since 2005, industry leaders have also campaigned for a new initiative to guard against future calamity: an oyster crop insurance program, similar to those available to farmers. That plan was finally approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Nov. 20 (see sidebar).

Things were looking up, and the two- to three-year growing cycle for local oysters meant those seedlings planted right after the 2005 hurricanes would come to maturity this fall.

Then came Gustav and Ike.

The spring floods caused extensive oyster losses, but that bad turn was anticipated as the season's high river stages moved down from the Midwest states. The shocker was the destructive force of the Gustav and Ike storm surges, which struck just before the fall oyster harvest and pushed deeper and wider into the oyster-producing coastal areas than expected.

"We don't have anything to stop the water anymore," says Al Sunseri, an owner of the French Quarter seafood purveyor P&J Oyster Co. "Ike shouldn't have caused the trouble it did here considering where it hit in Texas, and it's pretty clear why that happened. It's the land loss, the erosion."

Potential storm surge is an issue oyster growers face each hurricane season, but this year's storms revealed just how vulnerable the state's oyster-producing areas have become as the wetlands that separate them from the open Gulf continue to wash away. Though the threat of coastal erosion is well known in the industry, this year's results were an all-too-tangible demonstration of how extensive the crisis has grown.

"The future supply of oysters is a major concern for me now," says Tommy Cvitanovich, co-owner of the two Drago's Seafood Restaurants in Metairie and New Orleans, which serve thousands of oysters a day. "I hear from the fishermen that areas that have been reliable for a long time, generations, are now dead."

This year's storms brought plenty of pain to go around the Louisiana seafood industry, and some segments were harder hit than the oyster community. An analysis produced in late September by Dr. Rex Caffey, director of Louisiana State University's Center for Natural Resource Economics & Policy, pegs the state's oyster industry losses from the two storms at $6.3 million, or close to 21 percent of its 2007 revenue. That doesn't include losses from the spring floods, which industry sources say drive up total losses to between 40 and 50 percent of their expected harvest this year. Still, the vastly larger shrimp and farmed crawfish fisheries in Louisiana suffered much higher monetary losses, an estimated $30.5 million and $19 million respectively, at the hands of Gustav and Ike.

"The oyster situation is serious, but there are sectors of the commercial fishing industry here that are worse off," Caffey says.

That's because apart from storm losses, some of these other sectors must contend with fierce price competition from imported products, especially shrimp, Caffey says, while local oyster harvesters don't have the same market pressure. Louisiana typically fulfills one-third of the nation's annual oyster consumption, and the state accounts for half of all Gulf Coast oyster production, according to the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, an industry group.

Over the past 10 years, the average wholesale price for Louisiana oysters paid by dealers at dockside has been $2.48 per pound, according to data collected by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The yearly average shot up from $2.51 per pound in 2004, before Katrina and Rita, to $3.15 per pound in 2006, an increase credited to lower supply after the storms.

Prices fell slightly through 2007 and while averages for this year are not yet available oyster growers and dealers say their prices have remained fairly stable thus far. They say the national recession has cut demand sharply and is keeping prices steady despite a greatly reduced harvest this year.

What worries oystermen more than this year's losses, though, is how quickly the oyster-producing areas are deteriorating and how far off any hoped-for remedies seem. Maintaining reefs, planting seed stock for future seasons and harvesting stationary oysters makes the business more like farming than fishing, and some oystermen say they now feel like farmers watching their topsoil blow away.

Antonio Aguado is a native of Mexico, and compared with some oystermen who can point to generations of family members who have worked the same local waters, he is a relative newcomer. But even in the course of a few years, Aguado says, coastal erosion's impact on prime oyster production areas is striking.

The wetlands girding the oyster reefs he works in south Terrebonne Parish are slimmer and farther away now, providing scant defense against oncoming storms. Standing on the metal deck of his 40-foot-long oyster lugger, Aguado traces his finger along the narrow brown line of marshland that edges the horizon and says it feels as if his boat were out at sea rather than chugging slowly over the shallow brackish bay.

click to enlarge Shuckers on the line at P&J Oysters in the French Quarter. The company, in operation since 1876, is the oldest continually operating oyster purveyor in America, and provides seafood to many local restaurants. The state of Louisiana provides one-third of all oysters to American markets and restaurants. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Shuckers on the line at P&J Oysters in the French Quarter. The company, in operation since 1876, is the oldest continually operating oyster purveyor in America, and provides seafood to many local restaurants. The state of Louisiana provides one-third of all oysters to American markets and restaurants.

In the aftermath of this year's storms, oystermen have once again begun clearing reefs of entangling marsh grass and reseeding them for oysters that should be ready for market in 2010 or 2011. As the work goes on, though, the prospect of future storms penetrating so deeply through the area's brittle coastline again has industry veterans unnerved.

"By far, coastal erosion is our biggest problem now," says Dave Cvitanovich, a relative of the Drago's restaurant family and a Plaquemines Parish oyster grower. "I'm out on the water every day and, God, it's accelerating. There's no slowdown. It's like watching an ice cube melt on your table."

The prodigious local oyster supply relies on the interplay of salty Gulf waters and freshwater coursing southward, but the dynamics of that relationship are far from stable.

"The reason why Louisiana leads the nation in oyster production is that the fresh water the river produces helps keep the salinity out," says John Supan, an oyster expert with the LSU Sea Grant program. "You can see how oyster production moves up and down the area with the rise and fall of salinity, so oystermen don't put all their eggs in one basket. They've learned to have reefs both east and west of the [Mississippi] river and on one side of a levee and the other so that they can harvest in different conditions."

The oysters' dependence on water composition made the industry an early proponent of freshwater diversion projects. According to a state policy report on oysters and coastal restoration issues, the first major diversion from the Mississippi River was constructed in 1956 at the behest of the oyster industry, which wanted more fresh water flowing over oyster grounds in Breton Sound.

Freshwater diversions are now a cornerstone of coastal restoration work because ideally they mimic the natural land-building processes the Mississippi River provided before it was contained by levees. In many cases, they also have been vital to keeping the water in oyster-growing areas fresh enough for continued oyster production, though in others they have added so much fresh water that the areas have become unsuitable for oysters, according to the state's policy report. The state has been sued by some oystermen as a result, while the industry has also secured federal money for harvesters to relocate oyster beds impacted by freshwater diversion projects. The state now provides maps to oystermen each summer to show future plans for coastal restoration projects to help guide their September planting decisions.

But the big picture of coastal erosion and stakes of restoration efforts are now becoming a focus for industry leaders.

"The oyster farmers have been pretty flexible with the levees and the canals, and learning how to operate in those salinity regimes," says P&J's Sunseri, who is chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force. "But what we really need, and what we really wish we could see more of, is building back those barrier islands and marshlands to protect what's left here."

Alarm over the issue has been growing across the state. Louisiana voters rated erosion and wetlands loss as the most serious problems facing the area — higher than the economy or crime — in a survey conducted during the summer by the polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates. The same survey found the vast majority of Louisiana voters believe wetlands can be restored and protected.

Coastal restoration advocates have long maintained the problem is too big — and the solutions too expensive and complex — for Louisiana to handle on its own. Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network, sees the losses the oyster industry suffered this year as an indication of how broadly the threat of coastal erosion cuts through Louisiana and how badly the issue needs attention from national policymakers.

"To oystermen, what we'd say is that as busy and as overwhelmed as we know you are, we need you — people who are being economically impacted — to let Congress know that this is a significant issue and we need help. We can't just sit back and assume the feds will handle it on their own," Sarthou says.

Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, says coastal erosion now is a key issue on his agenda when he and local industry leaders meet with politicians and policymakers around the country. "Land loss is the first issue, because without a change there these things like we had with Gustav and Ike will keep happening," Smith says. "The government needs to wake up. That's why we try to get people down here to see the area, take the tour. Once they actually see it, they get it."

This year's experience has certainly driven home the consequences of land loss for Voisin at Motivatit Seafoods. He is not easily rattled by a bad season with heavy oyster losses, explaining that it's normal to have bad years and normal that some oystermen will leave the business as a result, while others will adapt. But when it comes to the enormity of the coastal erosion issue and its impact on the industry, Voisin grows far less sanguine.

"I'm the seventh generation of my family in this business and with my sons we're at the eighth generation. There will be an opportunity for the ninth and the tenth generations, but that depends on our stewardship," Voisin says. "I think we've done a good job there, but we just have to get our arms around this coastal erosion.

"It's not about money or about whether we can do it or not. It has to do with the will to do this. Do we have the will as a nation? Do we want there to be a Louisiana coastline as we've had it? We've built the Panama Canal, we've been to the moon. We can save south Louisiana, but we have to decide that we can do it."

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