Several times a week, the Miss Allison pulls away from a dock near a small place called Theriot, La., bound for where porpoises sometimes provide escort. Its captain, Santos Rodriguez, sun-baked and 44, has churned these waters for 26 years, long enough to wonder whether he’s raking up the same shells and bottles; long enough to measure a bag’s weight by hand rather than by scale.
And yes, the captain eats oysters. Using a short knife, he pops the seal of a just-harvested oyster with safecracker élan, makes a cut, and slurps the wild goop down.
But with the oil spill forcing the shutdown of oyster beds throughout the gulf — including about 60 percent of Motivatit’s acreage — he has never seen the catch so low. Yes, the price for a sack is up, but the total number of sacks is down. Normally, he and his crew will return to shore with about 60 sacks; now, a good day is 35.
His two muck-spattered deckhands, Luis Gomez, 24, and Cesar Badillo, 23, reflect the changed life, having recently moved to Houma after oyster beds elsewhere in Louisiana shut down. Mr. Gomez wears a cross around his neck, Mr. Badillo wears a burlap sack for an apron, and both wear gloves over their shell-scarred hands.
After a piece of machinery breaks, the Miss Allison turns around. By the time it reaches shore, to a dock paved with crushed oyster shells, the crew has 30 sacks filled and knotted — about $90 each for the deckhands, and about $420 for the captain, who has paid for the gas and food and must now fix the broken equipment.
Early the next morning, amid the din of the Motivatit plant in Houma, a stocky woman in a blue construction hat weighs these bags and others by hook. She then dumps their contents, which look like bits of construction debris, onto a conveyor belt to begin a process that involves tumblers, washers and dozens of employees. Wearing hairnets and aprons adorned with their first names and hand-drawn hearts, they shuck and shuck.
But because the oil spill has forced the shutdown of so many of Motivatit’s oyster beds — most of them out of precaution, some of them because of the presence of oil — these workers are processing about half the normal number of oysters. “With the lower amount of product, we’re having to cut most of the orders,” Mike Voisin says. “We’ve had to minimize.”
This means that Motivatit now employs about 80 workers, two dozen fewer than usual. The entire night shift has been suspended.
This means that the weekly deliveries to Los Angeles, by way of El Paso, Tucson and Phoenix, have stopped, as have the deliveries to Las Vegas, where clients prefer smaller oysters from beds that are now off limits.
This means that Warehouse Shell Sales, in Newport, Minn., may have to adjust. Several times a year, it has 1,500 tons of gulf oyster shells, including many from Motivatit, barged up the Mississippi River to be crushed and sold as poultry feed mix; chickens draw calcium from the oyster-shell bits sitting in their gizzards, hardening the shells of the eggs they produce.
But the oil spill has the shell company’s owner, Gary Lund, worried about supply. He says he is now exploring other options.
Finally, this means disaster for the burlap-sack guy, Steve Airhart.
Four months ago, his hot and dusty warehouse in Waveland was humming, with loose sacks coming in and baled sacks going out: 135,000 sold in March, 139,000 in April, and the busy summer season coming up. Then it stopped.
Mr. Airhart, 49, did what he could for a few weeks, but finally he had to lay off Paula, Jessica and the others. “One of the hardest days of my life,” he says. “But they knew it was coming. They heard me on the phone, begging to make sales.”
Now the warehouse is mostly empty, save for the few stacks of bales no one wants, and a boat that Mr. Airhart suddenly had the time to finish. He says that BP, the oil company responsible for the spill, has paid him $20,000 so far for lost business, but that is nowhere near enough to cover the $320,000, plus sweat equity, that he has invested in the company.
The former oysterman is looking forward to sliding this boat he’s built into the damaged waters. He wants to help clean up what has broken so many fragile systems.