April 16, 2011
Paul Greenberg's article from The Times of London
April 14 2011 12:01AM
First wrecked by Hurricane Katrina, then ruined
during BP’s disastrous oil spill, the Gulf oyster beds
are in jeopardy
Just off the coast of Empire, Louisiana, about 40 miles north of
where BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig sank into the sea a year ago,
Captain Eric Buras steers an open-decked barge in a tight circle.
His two crew members, Raymond Sylve and his son Emmett,
stand at a cleaning table, hammer- headed hatchets at the ready.
After five circles, Buras throws a lever and the boat’s dredge
emerges from the deep and comes up over the
railing. Shrakkkkhroars the chain link holding bag and around
50 wild Louisiana oysters, each as big as a man’s clenched fist,
spill out on to the table.
As the Sylves work at the clumps with their hatchets, breaking
them down into individual animals, Buras grabs one, wedges a
knife into its hinge, prises it open and severs the meat’s
ligaments with a sweep of the knife. The liquor and the waters of
the Gulf mix in the shell. “You wanna eat one?” he asks.
I think seriously for moment about last year’s spill and the
suffering the Louisiana fishing community has endured. The
stories of fishermen who had lost their boats and their oyster
beds in Hurricane Katrina in 2005, who were on the verge of
gaining some of it back with an anticipated bumper crop in 2010
— only to lose as much as 80 per cent of their oysters in the spill.
I think about the reams of government data saying the seafood is
safe, the counter-narratives from a few in the bayous that say it is
not, and the rumours whispered in oyster country that the
dispersant Corexit is still being sprayed in nighttime sorties
whenever a random slick bubbles up from the mud. Then in the
way one addresses a muddy-shelled Louisiana oyster fresh from
the muck, I press my lips to the very center of the meat and
inhale the whole briny mass. Not a whiff of taint. It is delicious, if
a bit warm.
William Thackeray wrote that eating an American oyster was
“like eating a baby”. Presumably the author was referring to the
tremendous size of the Crassostrea virginica he encountered
when Stateside, a totally different genus from Ostrea edulis, the
smaller European oyster eaten from Colchester to Belon. But
Thackeray might also have had his gag reflex triggered by the
sheer abundance of American oysters that once paved the nearshore
waters not only of Louisiana, but most of the American
Back then, as Mark Kurlansky tells in his book The Big Oyster,
New Yorkers consumed on average 600-700 locally caught
oysters per year. Billions inhabited New York harbour.
Today they are gone, the beds of the famed Chesapeake are in
trouble and many lesser grounds are fading fast. In a
phenomenon the National Academy of Sciences has described as
“a moving wave of exploitation”, oyster collapse has moved down
the American coasts with ever more distant estuaries providing
the “seed” oysters to keep collapsing fisheries further north in
business. Pollution accelerates the process. This trend is not
exclusive to the United States. A 2011 paper by the Nature
Conservancy reported an 85 per cent reduction in oyster reefs
worldwide. The mouth of the Thames has suffered as much
oyster loss as the mouth of the Hudson.
The last great Northern Hemisphere stronghold of the wild
oyster is their most southerly redoubt, the Gulf of Mexico. It’s
one of the only places left in the world where most people can
afford to sit down at a bar, order and consume a dozen oysters
and then feel financially capable of saying “you bet” when the
waiter comes by and asks, “How about another dozen?”
Drive down a Louisiana thoroughfare heading into the town of
Golden Meadow, a sign catches my attention. “Collins Oyster Co”
it reads, “Out of Business After 90 Yrs. Thanks to BP’s Oil and
Governor Jindal’s Freshwater.” Inside, I meet Wilbert Collins
and his son Nick, lifelong watermen born of watermen who
explain with the charmingly elongated vowels of Cajuns speaking
English, what had prompted their lawn sign. “On TV they always
showed those birds full of oil. They make a big issue with it,”
Wilbert Collins tells me, “But they killed millions and millions
and millions of oysters and nobody said nothing.”
What killed the oysters was not crude oil but freshwater. As oil
rushed toward the coast last spring the Governor’s coastal coordinator
made the call to throw open the Mississippi River’s
freshwater diversion devices that had been installed, ironically to
help improve the water quality of the Delta. The emergency
measure was taken in the hope that a counter-surge of river
water would drive oil offshore.
While it’s hard to judge the efficacy of this move, what it did do
was drive millions of gallons of freshwater over the oyster beds.
Too much freshwater blows out an oyster’s pump as it tries
desperately to maintain a salinity balance. Two months of open
diversions on an overfull river proved too much.
“Them things pushed a lot freshwater,” Wilbert’s son, Nick, tells
me. “A ridiculous amount. And it didn’t move the oil at all.”
Representatives from the State of Louisiana see their action as a
very difficult but necessary choice between short-term injury and
chronic damage. But the Collinses and the State agree on one
point: that BP should have done more to fix the problems it
caused. “BP is now refusing to provide emergency funding to
help mitigate these ongoing impacts to our oyster community,”
Olivia Watkins, from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and
Fisheries, says. “BP had actually committed to that funding late
last year. However, they have since changed their mind and
retracted that commitment.”
As proof of the oyster apocalypse, Nick Collins takes me out on
his boat and surveys his beds. As in my earlier trip, the dredge
dragged along the bottom came up full and then spilled its
contents on to the cleaning table. Every single oyster was a dead
This is particularly painful after Hurricane Katrina. Katrina
destroyed a lot of oysters, but hurricanes also spread larvae, or
“spat”, far and wide. It can take years for oyster numbers to
rebuild after a hurricane but when they finally do the results can
be spectacular. A plethora of post-Katrina oysters should have
been coming to market right when the BP well blew.
But even if Nick Collins were pulling up bushels of oysters full
with the plump meat of yesteryear, he might not be able to sell
them at a decent price today. Typically, food scares are irrational:
the recent dumping of radioactive water into the seas of Japan
has cast a pall over the consumption of all sushi, Japanese or not.
And perhaps food-cautious emotions are hitting hardest after the
spill in the places that sell the most oysters — Louisiana
Tommy Cvitanovich is the owner of a popular pair of restaurants
in greater New Orleans called Drago’s. After telling his chef to
fire up a dozen of his famous (and delicious) charbroiled oysters
for me, he tries to set me straight on what he feels is the public’s
glaring misconception of Louisiana seafood post-spill.
“The perception of our oysters not being safe is ludicrous,”
Cvitanovich says. “Right now, our seafood is the most tested food
product in the United States. You’ve got Wildlife and Fisheries,
the State Board of Health, the State Department of
Environmental Quality all testing the waters. And that’s just at a
state level. On a national level you have NOAA, FDA, and the
EPA and no one is coming up with positive tests.”
In spite of all of these tests, a poll of national restaurants that
was commissioned by Greater New Orleans Inc found that only
19 per cent of those restaurants’ clients held a favourable view of
Gulf seafood in 2010, compared with 75 per cent before the spill.
A lot of this is plain irrational fear from people outside the region
who are not aware of the intensity of effort being directed at
verifying seafood. But some of it stems from the sheer quantity of
seafood Gulf residents eat. In the brackish sluiceways and milktea
bayous of the rural part of the state the standard unit of
measurement for local seafood is the sack. A sack is a burlap bag
that can hold roughly 18 dozen oysters, 37 dozen crayfish, or 50
dozen bigano snails. Any of these creatures might end up in a
sack at any given month of the fishing season, and it is not
unheard-of for a family in the bayous to go through a sack in a
single day several times a week.
This has prompted some, such as Wilma Subra, a Louisiana
chemist who provides technical assistance to the Louisiana
Environmental Action Network, to cast doubt on the way the
safety of Louisiana seafood is being framed. “When the
government established levels of concern for polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbon (PAHs), they used consumption rates that are not
appropriate for the Gulf,” Subra tells me.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries asserts that
this is not the case. One of its recent press releases states that the
average consumer could eat 1,575 jumbo shrimp, 130 oysters or
9lb of Louisiana fish every day for up to five years “without
exceeding the health risks for contamination”.
I can personally attest to the overwhelming quantity of local
seafood in the Gulf diet. By simply eating what is available in
roadside shacks, people’s homes and restaurants my final tally
for the week is 97 oysters, 36 shrimp, 26 crawdads and a half
pound each of flounder, catfish and amberjack. Most of it was
fried. All of it was delicious. To date, I am asymptomatic for PAH
poisoning, though my doctor does mention something about
elevated cholesterol. . .
Towards the end of my time in Louisiana I find myself thinking
not only about Gulf seafood’s impact on my body, but also my
body’s impact upon Gulf seafood. And so just before heading
back to New York I decide to do a little penance, driving East
along Highway 10, a road literally made out of oysters that were
dragged from the bay and crushed up into roadbed.
My destination is a site just outside Mobile, Alabama, a place
where the non-governmental organisation The Nature
Conservancy is trying to rebuild what had once been a billionstrong
One of the only touching things about the otherwise faceless life
of an oyster is that what an oyster likes best is the nubby shell of
another oyster. In Louisiana, where BP payments are falling
short, oystermen are standing on the sidelines, lacking enough
money to put “cultch” (oyster shells), back on to the beds so that
if oysters spawn this spring and release larvae or “spat”, the
young will have somewhere to “set” and mature three years later
into an adult oyster.
With cultch either lacking or covered in slime from the
freshwater inundations, a terrible downward spiral could be at
hand. No cultch means nowhere for young oysters to set, which
in turn reduces the amount of mature oysters, which in turn
leads to dirtier water, which leads to even fewer oysters. And
pretty soon the water becomes brown and murky, fish are less
abundant and sediment chokes the bottom.
The only thing to be done is to put oyster shells back in the water
in hope that baby oysters will find them and make a home for
Wading into Mobile Bay, water quickly washed over the top of
my boots but the enthusiasm of the several dozen volunteers was
warming. A few hundred metres out from the landing I join the
brigade, passing 5kg bags of oyster shells hand-to-hand.
Previous reefs built this way by the Nature Conservancy have
shown to attract thousands of oysters per square metre. By my
eye, the reef we are building is approaching 10 metres. In a
morning’s work, my personal contribution has possibly laid the
groundwork to put back into the world all that I have taken.
But the oyster has suffered a terrible blow. The Gulf has lost tens
of millions of them in a single year. The world has lost hundreds
of billions in the past century. If we are going to fix things, we’re
going to need a lot more oysters.
Paul Greenberg is the author of Four Fish: A Journey from the
Posted by Pool 32 Admin at 16.4.11