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From a Gulf Oyster, a Domino Effect

In Gulf of Mexico waters deemed safe, at least for now, the two metal claws of a weather-beaten flatboat rake the muck below for those prehistoric chunks of desire, oysters. Then the captain and his two deckhands, their shirts flecked with the pewter mud of the sea, dump the dripping haul onto metal tables and begin the culling.

They hammer apart the clumps of attached oysters and toss back the empty shells and stray bits of Hurricane Katrina debris. They work quickly but carefully; a jagged oyster will slice your hand for not respecting its beautiful ugliness.

Shucking Louisiana oysters
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Shucking Louisiana oysters

The men sweep their catch onto the boat’s floor, not far from a pile of burlap sacks. Their day will be measured by the number of full sacks their boat, the Miss Allison, carries to shore. Each 100-pound sack means $14 for the captain and $3 apiece for the deckhands.

The rocklike oyster and the burlap sack. As basic as it gets in the gulf, yet both are integral to a complex system of recycling and ingenuity, a system now threatened, along with most everything else, by the continuing oil-spill catastrophe in the gulf.

The disaster’s economic fallout has had a sneaky domino effect, touching the lives of everyone from the French Quarter shuckers who turn oyster-opening into theater to the Minnesota businessman who grinds the shells for chicken-feed supplement. Some victims were unaware that they were even tiles in the game, so removed were they from the damaged waters.

Take the burlap sacks on this oyster boat, for example, bearing the markings of Brazilian, Costa Rican and Mexican coffee companies. They come from a simple business, Steve’s Burlap Sacks, run out of a hot warehouse in Waveland, Miss., 120 miles away. And if you were to go there today, you would find the warehouse quiet, and the work-hardened owner trying very hard to keep it together.

“I don’t think the Lord’s looking this way no more,” he says.

Before a distant and fatal oil-rig explosion nearly three months ago, here is how the symbiotic sack-and-oyster system worked:

Coffee companies in Florida, Louisiana and Texas would unload the raw beans shipped from around the world, then sell their sacks in bulk to just about the only person who wanted them, a callused former oysterman from Louisiana named Steve Airhart.

Burlap sacks have long seemed almost divinely designed to hold oysters. Resilient, ventilated, able to handle the wet, and when past their use, they even burn well enough to keep the docks free of the pesky bugs called no-see-ums. But two decades ago, when Mr. Airhart was still raking for oysters, he could never find enough sacks.

After a friend’s relative helped him get some sacks from a large coffee importer, Mr. Airhart sensed opportunity. Within a year, he was harvesting sacks rather than oysters, sorting and stacking them in his driveway and then reselling them to oyster operations. From Bayou La Batre, Ala., to Galveston, Tex., he became known as the burlap-sack guy.

He had to start all over after Hurricane Katrina, living in a tent for several months while building a new warehouse in Waveland. But soon his employees were unloading truckloads of sacks, then laying the undamaged ones into a baler, 500 to a bale, each a ragged postcard from some faraway place.

“Produce of Indonesia.”

“Produce de Cote D’Ivoire.”

“Cafes do Brasil.”

Mr. Airhart’s six employees — Ben, Clyde, Jessica, Paula, Tommy and Tyler — would work from 7 a.m. until whenever, breathing in the fine coffee dust, sweeping up the stray green beans, taking in the smell that was like wet dog, earning $13 a bale. Then a trucker would deliver the baled sacks to Misho’s Oyster Company, in San Leon, Tex., or to Crystal Seas Seafood, in Pass Christian, Miss., or to Motivatit Seafoods, in Houma, La.

Motivatit is owned by two brothers, Mike and Steve Voisin, whose family has dedicated several generations to the pursuit of a living thing in a forbidding shell; a thing that poses a faint risk when consumed raw, yet evokes the wildness of the ocean.

“You’re getting a real bite of the sea,” Mike Voisin says.

Motivatit is one of the gulf’s dominant oyster operations. Before the spill, it managed 10,000 acres of oyster beds and processed 60,000 pounds of oysters a day. But to collect these craggy surprises of nature, the company hires boats like the Miss Allison.

Letting people go

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.

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