Oyster Businesses Still Plagued By Gulf Oil Spill The oyster businesses in the Gulf of Mexico remain hobbled by the BP oil spill. Many companies are still operating with skeleton crews because of a scarcity of oysters. Proprietors also worry that people will shy away from seafood purchases even after oysters recover.

Oyster Businesses Still Plagued By Gulf Oil Spill

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GUY RAZ, host:

When BP's Macondo well sent millions of gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico this year, it halted life and business for the Louisiana seafood industry. With the well capped, many people are now back to work, but the oyster industry is still hobbled.

NPR's Tamara Keith first introduced us to one oysterman and the owner of an oyster processing company back in June. Today, she takes us back.

TAMARA KEITH: Mitch Jurisich and Al Sunseri have worked with oysters all their lives. Their family oyster businesses go back generations. But when I met them back in June, both men were wondering whether their businesses would survive the oil spill.

I watched Sunseri tell employees at his oyster processing facility not to come to work because they were out of oysters. And Jurisich had just found oil in his family's oyster beds.

Mr. MITCH JURISICH: It was a sad day. You know, you were here that day.

KEITH: Jurisich hasn't harvested oysters in any significant quantity since then. Still, as he steers a small boat around his oyster beds, Jurisich says things are looking better than they did on that grim June day.

Mr. JURISICH: The oil came in and the oil left, disappeared, whatever. And the mortality to the oysters was very minimal in most areas.

KEITH: But the stress didn't stop when the oil moved away. Remember the sand berms the state of Louisiana wanted to build to keep the oil from reaching fragile wetlands?

Well, two of the berms now cut right through Jurisich's oyster beds. He figures about 20 percent of his oysters have been affected, either buried or smothered by drifting sediment.

Mr. JURISICH: We fought the oil. We won the battle in a way. And now we're fighting man's decision to stop the oil. They have destroyed more oyster crops than I think the oil would have ever.

KEITH: Every day, Jurisich goes out with a handheld video recorder to document the damage. Jurisich says he knows there's a good reason for the berms, but he doesn't like the way they're built, and he's skeptical that he'll be reimbursed for all of his losses.

Jurisich plans to start harvesting oysters again in February, from the beds that haven't been affected. That's when he'd normally start for the year. He's confident the oysters are okay to eat. He eats them every day right off the edge of his boat.

(Soundbite of falling oysters)

KEITH: He grabs a pair of oyster tongs - they look like two rakes wired together - and pulls up half a dozen big, apparently healthy oysters.

Mr. JURISICH: They go through a lot, you know, to get to our table. I'm glad they're tough as they are, too, because it keeps me going.

KEITH: What he doesn't know is whether there will be any demand for his prized oysters. He's afraid memories of the oil spill will keep customers away.

Mr. JURISICH: I live here, work here and eat my homegrown seafood. And for me to think about it every day, I can only imagine what happens to somebody, say, in Ohio and says no way.

KEITH: Concerns about demand weigh even more heavily on Al Sunseri.

Mr. AL SUNSERI (Co-Owner, P&J Oyster Company): You know, the national market just isn't there.

KEITH: It's quiet now at P&J Oysters in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Back in June, there were 20 full-time employees. Now it's just Sunseri, his brother Sal and a couple of guys working part-time.

Mr. SUNSERI: We've never had to operate at this scale ever in my time, even following Hurricane Katrina.

KEITH: But Sunseri can't get his hands on enough oysters to do anything more. None of Sunseri's regular suppliers, including Mitch Jurisich, have started harvesting again. And because he doesn't have oysters to sell, Sunseri says he's lost all of his retail customers and two-thirds of his wholesale customers.

Mr. SUNSERI: We were the premier oyster company in the New Orleans metropolitan area. And now we're not.

KEITH: Sunseri says many New Orleans restaurants and markets used to only buy from him. Since the oil spill, they've had to buy from other processors and distributors.

Mr. SUNSERI: And they feel loyalty to have to get some from them because they were able to have them when we didn't.

KEITH: So even if his regular suppliers start bringing in oysters early next year as planned, Sunseri says things won't return to normal for his business.

Mr. SUNSERI: You know, people just don't turn on a light switch and then it's able to be like it was. That's not the way it is.

KEITH: Because of supply issues and higher prices, Gulf oysters aren't on as many menus as they used to be.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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