SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Add an oyster shortage on the Texas Gulf Coast to the problems exacerbated by the state’s years-long drought.
But Texas’ dry spell isn’t the only reason the coastal delicacies are harder to come by lately. What was once an abundant supply of oysters in bays from Port Aransas up past Galveston has taken a succession of hits, including sediment dumps from Hurricane Ike in 2008 and continually increasing water temperatures — along with hypersalinity caused by drought and thirsty inland cities with fast-growing populations.
Heightened saltiness encourages the spread of parasites and disease.
“Drought plus a growing population equals no water entering the bays,” said Bryan Legare, a natural resource specialist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “The reservoirs aren’t releasing as much water as they need to for environmental concerns.”
The shortage is pushing up prices.
For Groomer Seafood, a San Antonio-based supplier, it has meant oysters are selling at a higher price.
“We still sell quite a bit of oysters. It’s just that what used to cost $30 now costs probably $50,” said Rick Groomer, the company’s president. “It’s more of a luxury.”
He’s noticed restaurants pulling back on selling oysters at their bars in favor of using them in entrees.
“As a processed product like oysters Rockefeller or a fried oyster, they can justify the price in their menu,” Groomer told the San Antonio Express-News
But customers coming into the company’s store to stock up for a weekend fete and caterers buying for a wedding oyster bar seem to be willing to pay the higher price.
“They’re going to party no matter what, so it hasn’t slowed down at the retail level,” Groomer said.
Legare, meanwhile, has been working to re-create habitats for oysters by pouring tons of river rock into viable locations such as Sabine Lake and the East Bay. With spat, or juveniles, already settling in, there are hopes for market-sized oysters two years from now.
For now, Legare’s take on the state of the Texas oyster habitat is that it’s “a combination of change — and not good.”
Nor is the situation much better for the Gulf’s other oyster-producing states.
“Overall, the Gulf Coast’s just been hit with a number of negative events that seem to have cumulatively depressed production,” said Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries Inc. in Bon Secour, Alabama.
The events have included floods, droughts, hurricanes and precautionary harvesting bans in the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill.
In one case, the flood was man-made, caused by the state of Louisiana’s release of Mississippi River water in an attempt to push the oil away from sensitive coastal areas. The gush of river water may have saved marshlands, but it flushed out oyster beds. To make matters worse, reefs were further depleted by a naturally occurring flood in 2011.
On the other side of the Gulf in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay, the problem has been continuing drought.
Nelson said there hasn’t been a good harvest since 2007, before Ike barreled in.
“The impact of all these different problems, challenges along the Gulf Coast, have led to an historical low point in the production of oysters,” he said.
For Bon Secour, a seafood processor and distributor, the higher prices and limited availability have driven down demand. There’s also fear of lost market share as consumers get familiar with varieties of oysters from other places that may be less expensive.
“Whenever (Gulf) oysters become more abundant, it will be harder to break back into and retake markets due to the fact that we’ve got anything from a West Coast oyster coming from Washington state or maybe even a Korean oyster or a Chinese breaded oyster,” he said.
The West Coast oysters are predominantly farm raised and are a non-native species that could pose a threat to oysters found along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast. Sale of them fresh on the shell is prohibited in Texas — though they have been spotted on the menu of at least one downtown San Antonio restaurant.
“Those West Coast oysters are illegal,” Legare said.
He said another problem was the temptation to harvest oysters too young.
“The incentive for harvesting undersized oysters has increased because the resource is not keeping up with the demand,” he said. “It has become a big issue.”