As Gulf fisheries close, restaurants cast about for other sources of seafood.
Brian Bourque isn’t burning any oil this week. The oyster supplier and former owner of Black’s in Abbeville says there’s no reason to make a run down to Golden Meadow in Lafourche Parish to pick up Gulf oysters, which he supplies to half a dozen restaurants in the area, because the oyster beds he buys from are shut down. Last week, oil rolled onto the beaches of Grand Isle with the tide, fouling the sand, killing wildlife and potentially contaminating Louisiana’s fresh seafood. Approximately 60 percent of Louisiana’s oyster reefs were closed to harvesting at press time Monday.
“We were on the boat when the oil started coming in,” he says. “You could see the sheen.”
While the state has been opening and closing oyster beds on both the east and west sides of the Mississippi River for five weeks now, testing waters before it allows oystermen to harvest their beds, this may mean the end of Louisiana oysters on menus around town.
It’s not only oil that is cause for concern when it comes to Gulf seafood. John Tesvich, chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, is equally dismayed by the toxicity of the dispersant BP has used for a month to break up the oil slick. “They’ve used more dispersant than any other spill, and we’re definitely concerned about it. Dispersants of those kinds, they are definitely not recommended.” Tesvich notes that none of the dispersant, Corexit, has been sprayed near the state’s oyster beds. “There’s nowhere that you’ll see that they will use it anywhere near the interior waters,” he says.
The state is taking a proactive approach to dispel fear that Louisiana’s seafood is unsafe to eat. The Louisiana departments of Wildlife and Fisheries and Health and Hospitals are working to get a plan ready this week that calls for widespread, ongoing testing of Louisiana oysters, shrimp and other seafood to ensure their safety, combined with a marketing program to tell consumers around the country that the products are safe to eat. Locals are just as fearful and confused.
“I got a phone call asking me if we had oysters,” says Chad Phares, owner of Phares’ Restaurant. “Then he asked me if the oysters had oil on them. That’s a crazy kind of phone call; I wouldn’t sell oysters with oil. I got 10 phone calls like that.”
The raw oyster season was already winding down at the beginning of May, as it does every year as Gulf waters warm and the oysters begin to spawn, causing them to lose optimal flavor and texture, but there is a year round demand for fried seafood.
“I’m taking oyster poboys off my menu,” says Justin Girouard, chef/owner of The French Press. “They’ve gone up $4 a gallon.” Girouard is feeling the pinch when it comes to fresh crabmeat as well. “Crab is basically at winter prices, $24.99 a pound for jumbo lump. That’s the same price as December.”
“I still ran my oyster specials last week; this week’s kind of iffy, and I don’t have a real promise for oysters for about three weeks,” says Phares. “For me the majority of my business is oysters. Over 40 percent is oysters and shrimp.
I’m kind of scared and trying to figure out where to go.”
Texas will begin harvesting oysters in about two weeks, says Phares, when it has finished seeding its beds. Oysters along the Texas Gulf coast remain unaffected by the oil spill, and shrimpers are working right now in the waters of the western Gulf.
“We may have to start bringing in salmon,” Phares continues. “It’s not that popular here, but we may have to start importing. Everybody’s saying you’re going to have to do chicken and beef, but if every restaurant in Lafayette starts doing chicken and beef, it’s going to be pretty vanilla.”
Glum is the word to describe ordinarily chipper New Orleans Fish House Lafayette sales rep Tom Swett when it comes to the prospects for Louisiana’s fresh seafood production. “We’re at the start of shrimp season right now. Normally inventories of shrimp in freezers around the country are low anyway at the beginning of a new season.”
With much of the Louisiana shrimping fleet beached, shrimp prices are already rising. The fisheries are also struggling.
“Take tuna for example,” says Swett. “Now’s the time of the year when the yellow fin spawn. So if a boat’s able to get out of Venice, he’s still got to go 250 miles around the oil slick to get to the fishing grounds. If he doesn’t catch anything, he’s got to go 250 miles back around the slick, so that’s 500 miles at sea of fuel he’s spent. If he doesn’t catch anything, he loses, so a lot of them are reluctant to go; it’s a gamble every time.”
Swett says the uncertainty is getting to him. “The difficult thing is knowing exactly where the oil really is, and then there’s that dispersant they’re saying is so bad. I really don’t think we’re going to know for some years to come. I fear it’s a catastrophe,” adds Swett, who is resorting to the traditional Louisiana solution for disasters. “I want to get in a bar and drink.”
What may be a disaster for Louisiana’s seafood fleet offers Acadiana’s chefs an opportunity to put their creativity to work.
Over the course of the past year, Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro has been revising its menu to reflect the local food movement — sourcing as much food as possible from the immediate area. Owner Steve Santillo says he launched his new menu the week after the oil spill.
“There’s that little moment of freaking out. But it’s not likely to seriously affect the whole menu. We have a contingency plan.” While the oven roasted oysters and redfish almondine may disappear, Santillo says he can get fresh seafood from other waters. “We’ll have things that are recognizably not from here, like scallops and lobster, if the Gulf is out.”
Swett’s business has the ability to keep restaurants in supply of fresh fish. “We’re still able to bring in seafood. We fly in salmon from Scotland, halibut from Alaska, tuna from Hawaii. I can get oysters out of Quebec. They’re lovely oysters. But they are so much more expensive. We’re not acclimated to spending over $1 per oyster.”
Of course there are other things to eat than Gulf seafood to keep a locovore happy. Santillo is buying his farm-raised freshwater tilapia from the Gotreaux family in Scott. Crawfish from the Atchafalaya Basin and area ponds are both available at affordable prices. Farm-raised catfish can be had from as nearby as Catahoula in St. Martin Parish. And crabs are more adaptable to inland waters than many people think; there’s a brackish water population that thrives in the basin, tidal bayous, White Lake and Calcasieu Lake.
Cody McCown is in much the same boat as Santillo. His restaurant, LA Seafood House, specializes in local ingredients. “We’re still boiling crawfish, and we’re working on catfish recipes,” he says. His jumbo crabs come from Lake Pontchatrain, which is still open for fishing. “We’ve been watching the movement of the oil in the last 30 days,” says McCown. “We’re just rolling with the punches. With what we’re trying to do here, we’re directly affected by the possibility of no Louisiana seafood. We’re really paying close attention. As of right now, there is no date in the future to order everything by this date and that’s it. But with a moving target, it’s hard to plan.”
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