Oysters pricey but still hit Thanksgiving tables

STACEY PLAISANCE Associated Press Published:

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- As Thanksgiving nears, consumers with a taste for oyster soup and oyster dressing with their holiday meals are discovering the delectable shellfish are still in shorter supply and more expensive than before last year's Gulf oil spill. But most don't seem to mind.

"It's understandable," said New Orleans resident Simon Templer, who spent close to $20 for two pints of shucked oyster meat for a cream-based oyster and artichoke soup he plans to prepare for Thanksgiving. "The oyster industry is still hurting, so I'm willing to spend more if I have to."

Mike Voisin, owner of an oyster processing and sales business southwest of New Orleans, said Gulf oyster production is at the lowest level it's been in decades. Oyster harvesters took a bashing last year during the Gulf oil spill when much of the crop was killed off in coastal waters of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Now the oyster crop, which needs brackish water to thrive, is even more depressed because of freshwater intrusion from Mississippi River flooding this summer.

"This will be our lowest oyster year in a very long time, probably since the late '80s," Voisin said.

The cut in oyster production has driven prices up roughly 10 percent from last year, Voisin said. Last year the price for a pint of shucked oyster meat was in the $8 range, and this year the price is closer to $10, he said. Before the oil spill, a pint of oysters was as little as $6 or $7, he said.

"The price is a little high, but it's not like it's for milk or eggs or something I need every day," Templer said. "It's for oysters, and it's Thanksgiving."

Debra Martin, of Westwego, La., said her oyster and cornbread stuffing is a Thanksgiving standard.

"Everyone looks forward to my dressing," she said. "I'm going to have it no matter the cost."

Still, some say they just can't afford oysters this year.

"They're too high," said Bernadette Williams, of Westwego, La., who this year is nixing her breadcrumb-based oyster dressing from the Thanksgiving menu. "I'm on a fixed income, and I have to cook for more than 20 people. I made it last year, but I'm going to have to skip it this year."

Higher prices don't seem to be curbing restaurants from including oysters on their holiday menus.

Bob Mahoney, owner of Mary Mahoney's restaurant in Biloxi, Miss., said that even though he's paying a little more for oysters, he will be keeping his popular oyster soup on the menu this Thanksgiving.

"We'll have the oyster soup, the seafood gumbo, all of it," said Mahoney, who already has more than 200 reservations for Thanksgiving day.

Tommy Cvitanovich said his New Orleans restaurant, Drago's, will be serving up its famous charbroiled oysters free of charge to police, firefighters and emergency workers from a downtown New Orleans parking lot Thanksgiving day. It's a tradition launched the first Thanksgiving after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, and Cvitanovich said he won't stop because of higher oyster prices.

"It's something we like to do, that I think is important to do, as a thank you to the emergency workers in our community," Cvitanovich said. "I like to bring my kids so they can be reminded that Thanksgiving is about more than having a day off school."

Cvitanovich said he went as long as he could after the oil spill without raising prices on oysters served at his restaurant -- which are prepared either raw or charbroiled -- but he had to raise prices in January by 55 cents per dozen.

"That's the first time I had to raise my oyster prices in more than two years, but I don't think I'll have to do it again anytime soon," Cvitanovich said. "The industry is challenged and facing an uphill climb, but oysters are resilient animals, and they will come back."

Voisin said Gulf Coast states typically produce some 500 million pounds of the country's 750 million pounds of in-shell oysters annually, and roughly half of all Gulf Coast oysters come from Louisiana. After a dip in production following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the Gulf Coast oyster crop had almost rebounded when the BP oil spill sliced the harvest in half in 2010, Voisin said.

This year, freshwater from the Mississippi River flooding cut Louisiana production to about 35 percent, Voisin said. In Mississippi, the freshwater wiped the crop out entirely, said Shelly Becker, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources. Becker said the season opened on Oct. 24 but quickly closed on Oct. 29 "because there was nothing to harvest. There's wasn't enough salinity, and the oysters weren't good enough."

Though Alabama is among the smaller of the Gulf Coast oyster producers, it sits farther from the mouth of the Mississippi River and wasn't as affected by freshwater intrusion.

Avery Bates, a longtime oyster harvester in Bayou La Batre, Ala., who also serves as vice president of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama, said the state's oyster harvest appears to be healthy and relatively plentiful this year.

"They're salty, and they're good," Bates said.

One of the biggest challenges in Alabama and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast remains the seafood industry's reputation nationally, Bates said.

"I've never seen any storm hit us like BP did," Bates said. "It got our reputation. People lost their clientele and closed. BP hurt our reputation so bad."

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Associated Press writer Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., contributed to this report.

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