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Oil Spill's Latest Victim: Nation's Oldest Oyster Shucker

Thursday, 10 Jun 2010 | 4:02 PM ET

P&J Oyster Company, the oldest oyster supplier in the U.S., stopped shucking oysters Thursday, making it the latest victim of the Gulf oil spill. That means 18 people won't be working for the company next week.

Workers shell oysters at the P&J Oyster Company in New Orleans, Louisiana. The company, which sells some 60,000 oysters per day to restaurants in the New Orleans area, could face shortages in supply if the federal government moves to close off more areas of the Gulf to commercial fishing due to the BP oil spill.
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Workers shell oysters at the P&J Oyster Company in New Orleans, Louisiana. The company, which sells some 60,000 oysters per day to restaurants in the New Orleans area, could face shortages in supply if the federal government moves to close off more areas of the Gulf to commercial fishing due to the BP oil spill.

"We've been doing this for 134 years, and this is a somber occasion," said Sal Sunseri, one of the family members who co-owns the business, which typically would have sold about 60,000 oysters per day to restaurants in the New Orleans area.

Ironically, it's not the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that's killing the oysters. It's the effort to protect them.

In order for an oyster to live, it needs the right mix of fresh and salt water. But right now, the oil slick is threatening that delicate balance.

In an effort to push back the oil, Louisiana is increasing the flow of fresh water into the marshland where the oysters are harvested. That means, at least at this moment, the fresh water is a bigger threat to the oyster beds, than the ever-growing oil slick coming from BP's well.

Sunseri is frustrated that more hadn't been done prior to the Deepwater Horizon explosion to protect the sensitive marshlands where the oysters grow. Oystermen in the region have been calling for money to rebuild the coastline and shore up the beaches that serve as barriers to these areas, but that hasn't happened.

"It's unacceptable," Sunseri said.

The Gulf region supplies 67 percent of the nation's oysters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. With the well continuing to gush oil, no one knows how long the spill will interfere with the oyster beds, or how much damage it will inflect upon the area.

What's worse is it is occurring in the middle of spawning season, killing baby oysters. Sunseri said it can take about 2 years for an oyster to grow, so missing this year will impact the oyster population for years to come.

Sunseri plans to try to sell oysters processed from other regions to keep the business going, but he doesn't know how long those supplies will last.

Despite the uncertain future, Sunseri had served as chairman of the an Oyster Festival in New Orleans last weekend. It was the first festival of its kind, and Sunseri hopes it won't be the last

"I believe in God," Sunseri said. "I believe in miracles, and if they cap that well, we have a shot at getting everything back to the way it was."

Oyster Production in the Gulf States

State Landings (in pounds) Dockside Value
Louisiana 12,778,311 $38.8 million
Texas 2,679,207 $8.83 million
Mississippi 2,610,349 $6.87 million
West Florida 2,501,475 $5.47 million
Alabama 72,776 $243,414
Source: NOAA

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