Half Shelled

This weekend, New Orleanians will gather to celebrate the annual Oyster Festival, but in the unofficial “Oyster Capital of America,” all is not right. Five years after the explosion of BP’s oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, New Orleanians are still reporting problems caused by the oil that flooded the Gulf of Mexico. Sal Sunseri, co-owner of P&J Oyster Co. and co-founder of the New Orleans Oyster Festival talked with NoDef about the lingering effects.


The BP disaster caused damage to the many reefs that breed these mollusks. The oyster industry has experienced first-hand the myriad of issues that come along with an oil spill. Sunseri says that the lowered production of oysters has far-reaching effects. 


“People recognize how important [the oyster industry] is for the growth and spawning areas for fisheries like crab, shrimp and fish,” Sunseri explains. “All that truly does stem from the oysters.”


The energy giant says that it’s not just the oil that is causing the continued depletion of oysters.


“BP pushes the idea that the freshwater diversions that the governor opened up to help keep the oil away are the reasons that the oysters are still not coming back, but that’s not true,” Sunseri counters. 


The diversions were meant to stop oil from penetrating the estuaries, where many of the state’s oysters and other aquatic life live. They can, however, also cause the deaths of some of that aquatic life through both causing lowered salinity and by dislodging immobile creatures, like oysters. 


“Historically, in every freshwater event, whether it be a rainstorm or a hurricane, an abundance [of oysters] comes after the mortality,” Sunseri adds. “So yes, freshwater will kill the oysters, but the oysters come back strong. You’ll see major growth from that.”


Following the oil spill and the fresh water diversions, however, Louisiana’s oyster industry has not seen that expected re-growth. State data shows oyster output down as much as 60 percent in some areas.


The industry uses a combination of public and private reefs to foster the crustaceans. Oyster farmers get seed oysters from public reefs then transfer them to their private reefs, but Sunseri says that this farming technique has been in decline due to the lack of oysters on the reefs.


“We used to have 40% of our product drawn from public reefs, and now we’ve had maybe 5%,” he explains. 


But the news isn’t all negative. 


Many groups have been working to restore the Gulf and the habitats that breed oysters and other wildlife. 


ORA Estuaries, one of the beneficiaries of the New Orleans Oyster Festival, uses OysterBreak technology in order to develop a living reef. The company recently won the Big Idea challenge run by Idea Village. 


Another group, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, uses recycled oyster shells from restaurants to restore oyster reefs in the state. 


The problems are still numerous, though, Sunseri said. 


“We’re very concerned about how it’s going to be,” he said. “Mother nature is taking longer than anticipated.”

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