On my desk are two oyster shells. One is beautiful, with that pearl-white interior and a natural shape that allows it to stand up and hold anything I want to drop into it. The other has an ugly mud-brown color, is dotted with spots and looks like it just came out of the Gulf.
Actually, both did—I picked them up on an oyster lugger, about as fresh as any seafood can be. The mud-brown is not from oil, in spite of the fears (and, yes, the jokes). I kept it not for its looks, but for its story. Because, you see, when the oyster farmer pulled it out and opened it up for me, he showed me exactly why oysters have risen in price, why oysters are hard to get, and why oysters are at the heart of the Gulf crisis, at least for New Orleans.
Those brown spots? They are where the baby oysters died due to a lack of the proper balance between fresh and salt water. This time of year, those shells should be full of live larvae, with lots of oysters in the making. Instead, the farmers are dredging and pulling up shells with dead oysters or spots where only a memory remains.
You see, it’s not that oil came into these waters—it actually didn’t, because the efforts made to disperse the oil were successful.
Wilbert Collins (photo: right), part of a five-generation oyster farming family, told us, “It’s not the oil; we had no oil here. It’s the dispersal, the fresh water.” As fresh water was pumped to keep the oil from entering the area, it upset the delicate balance of nature and altered the balance that the oyster needs—part saltwater, part fresh. With too much fresh water, the oysters are dying, along with the industry that relies on it.
“These beds can’t be moved,” Collins says. He told us that the beds are literally on bedrock—something it would take way too many years to build up somewhere else. All he can do is wait for the waters to recover from the damage, not from the oil, but from the correction methods used to stop the spill from spreading.
“The government got his,” he says. “It’s the fishermen who are forgotten.” The fishermen who have family businesses, with work that is done by fathers, sons, brothers, laboring together for generations. They are used to going out in bad weather, used to lifting heavy loads, and used to hard work.
What they aren’t used to is being idle.
Meanwhile, there are Gulf oysters to be had, and they are tasty and well-tested—more so than at any other time in history. They just aren’t from the waters closest to New Orleans, where some of the best oysters in the world have traditionally been grown.
So, I keep the brown and stained shell as a reminder of the fishermen who have lost their livelihood through no fault of their own. And I keep the beautiful one as a reminder that there are signs of a return, if the fishermen can just hold out a little longer.
I Love the Gulf™
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More stories from our New Orleans tour
Emeril’s Carnivale du Vin Benefit Celebrates Wine, Food, and New Orleans
Tasting Gulf Seafood in The Big Easy