HOUMA, LA.--- A mucky pile of oysters rattles onto a metal table as captain Jesus Zarraga guides his trawler in lazy loops on the backwaters of Lake Mechant. While his four-man crew quickly sifts through the shells, a basket-like dredge is trailing in the dark water beneath the boat, scooping up a fresh load of the tasty mollusks.
Zarraga has been harvesting oysters for more than a quarter of a century. He didn't like the work when he first arrived from Mexico, he says, looking out at the grassy bayou while sweat rolls down his face. But now he loves it, and considers southern Louisiana his home.
Yet this summer two of Zarraga's three boats sit idle, sidelined by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. His story is one small piece of a compounding crisis faced by the oyster industry in the Gulf of Mexico, which supplies over 70 percent of all oysters harvested in the United States. Half of that amount comes from the state of Louisiana alone.
Over 1.3 million acres of public and privately leased water bottoms have been closed to oyster fishing due to the spill. While other fisheries have begun to be re-opened, oystering will likely be the last to get a green light – in part because the shellfish can't move away from encroaching oil, and in part because they feed by filtering particles out of the water and into their flesh.
"I don't want a second career, but I may have to look for one," says Steve Voisin, vice president of Motivatit Seafood in Houma, which has employed Zarraga for the last 25 years. At 57, Voisin has worked in the oyster business for most of his life. But the oil spill has put a serious dent in the company that he and his twin brother Mike run along with five other family members.
"It's kind of terrible," Voisin says. "We want to work but we can't go full bore because of circumstances."
Though Motivatit has cut back by about 40 percent, the Voisin brothers have been able to keep all parts of their business open. Many other oyster operations have not been as lucky. Some have closed their doors altogether. Others, such as Prestige Oysters in San Leon, Texas, have been forced to drastically scale back.
"Normally we would have a hundred people in this room," says Lisa Halili, vice president of Prestige, gesturing to a warehouse full of deserted shucking tables. Along one tiled wall stands a $2 million pressure washer that she and her husband invested in last year; out front, two walk-in freezers are almost empty.
"We sold 30,000 fewer sacks this April than we did last year," says Halili, who gets 70 percent of her oysters from leases that she and her husband own in Louisiana. "We're at about 15 percent of our usual levels and it's gotten worse every month."
But the damage caused by the oil spill is not limited to production.
In some areas, an added problem is a lack of labor, Steve Voisin says. Many of Motivatit's employees have gone to work for BP on cleanup operations – a tempting option when the oil company is offering deckhands up to $200 per day, and the future of the oyster fishery is uncertain.
Once the Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determine that oysters within the precautionary closure areas are safe to eat and fishing is re-opened, oystering may still take some time to recover.
Massive releases of fresh water from the Mississippi River are likely to have slowed that recovery. The releases created a strong outflowing current and kept oil from entering Barataria Bay and other delicate ecosystems; yet oysters were an unintended casualty. The bivalves depend on brackish water that is neither too salty nor too fresh to survive. Now, scientists and oyster fishermen are reporting heavy mortality in the areas that were flushed.
"I had a biologist assess our leases in Barataria Bay, and he said he was seeing 100 percent mortality," says Halili. "That's hard to swallow when you've paid so much money and invested so much time to plant and cultivate the oyster beds."
Because oysters are slow to mature, the losses in these areas could hamper production for several years.
But the most lasting damage may be that of public opinion, Mike Voisin says. At least for now, gulf seafood is deeply associated with toxic oil and dispersants, despite any scientific reports of lasting damage.
"Those perceptions have developed because of all the images of oil gushing out of the ocean floor that people have seen," he adds. "It's going to take a fair amount of marketing and advertising to help us to allay those fears."
(Photos: Jacoba Charles)