Oysters Lose Their Allure
Industry Fears the Public Will Shun the Mollusks in the Wake of the BP Spill
By JEFFREY BALL
SAN LEON, Texas—Truckloads of Gulf of Mexico oysters headed to restaurants and grocery stores over the past week, the biggest supply to hit the market since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated the local seafood industry earlier this year.
Texas, which with other Gulf states supplies two-thirds of the oysters produced in the U.S., opened its annual oyster season Monday; Louisiana is set to follow suit Nov. 15.
But as the year’s big harvest begins, dealers are holding their breath: Will Americans still have any appetite for oysters?
Lisa Halili fears not. She and her family run Prestige Oysters Inc., one of the biggest oyster dealers in the U.S. Every year, its boats and docks along the coasts of Texas and Louisiana supply millions of pounds of oysters destined for raw bars and deep fryers nationwide.
Early last week she sat nervously at Prestige’s headquarters, a cinderblock building beside the company’s main dock here. Outside, crews heaved 110-pound burlap sacks of oysters from boats onto the dock. Forklifts drove the catch into tractor trailers that headed to processors as far away as Virginia.
But inside, Ms. Halili worried that despite government assurances that the seafood is safe, consumers would reject Gulf oysters in the wake of the three-month oil spill, just as they resisted buying Tylenol for a time after a scare involving the pain reliever in 1982.
“I have to be honest. I didn’t want to use Tylenol,” she said. Gulf oysters today, she said, are “kind of like that.”
Known as “filter feeders,” oysters take in the water around them, along with whatever’s in it. Given that BP PLC’s ruptured well sent an estimated 4.1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf by the time it was capped, the industry worries that consumers, fearing contamination, will no longer want what it has to sell.
Government officials have been testing oysters and other seafood from the Gulf and say, along with industry groups, that the seafood is safe to eat.
However, in a poll this summer by the University of Minnesota’s Food Industry Center and Louisiana State University’s Agricultural Center, 38% of respondents said that as a result of the oil spill they would eat either less Gulf seafood or none at all.
The oil spill has already hit the industry hard. Fishermen who lease underwater acreage were not able to harvest fresh oysters from beds that the government closed as a precaution during the spill. In Louisiana, fishermen hauled in just $8.1 million worth of oysters between April 20 and Aug. 31 this year, down 62% from the same period last year, according to the state.
Fall, though, is when the harvest opens on most oyster beds, when fishermen catch most oysters—and when Americans eat them, particularly at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
On Monday, the start of the Texas season, so many oyster boats crowded Prestige’s dock that one rammed another as it tried to make a turn.
“Keep loading! Keep loading,” yelled Johnny Halili, Prestige’s chief executive and Ms. Halili’s husband. An Albanian native, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1976, bought an oyster boat a few years later and built the company into a Gulf empire with sales of $20 million last year.
But even Mr. Halili said he wasn’t sure how many people would now want his oysters. “When they hear ‘Gulf Coast oysters,’ ” he said, “they think there’s something wrong.”
Just 11 tractor trailers showed up for oysters Monday at Prestige’s Texas docks. That’s about half the normal number on oyster season’s opening day, Ms. Halili said.
Ruzhdi Halili, Johnny and Lisa Halili’s 24-year-old son, sees other troubling signs. Nicknamed “Raz,” he drives a black Range Rover his father bought with money he made in the business. But he has had a tough time drumming up orders recently.
Last week he called John Sands, a buyer for Supreme Lobster & Seafood Co., an Illinois-based distributor that sells to hotels on the Las Vegas strip. Mr. Sands’s response: No thanks.
A few of Supreme’s Las Vegas customers said “that they’ve been advised by their insurance carriers that maybe they should keep Gulf oysters off the menu,” Mr. Sands said in an interview. These hotels are “mass feeders,” he explained, and fear a customer might claim he was served an oiled oyster and sue.
Mr. Sands said he believed government assurances that Gulf oysters are safe. But he added: “We’re not in the business of changing public perception.”
As the week wore on, it became clear that a lot of people shared that perception. On Friday, Prestige loaded just five tractor trailers in Texas.
“Nobody wants anything,” Ms. Halili said. “I knew this was going to happen.”
Write to Jeffrey Ball at email@example.com