October 24, 2005

Louisiana oyster industry reopens after storms

By Kevin Krolicki

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Louisiana's oyster processing
plants went back to work on Monday for the first time in two
months after health officials cleared about half of the state's
oyster beds for resumed harvesting.

Louisiana's $250-million oyster industry typically accounts
for a third of U.S. output, but the twin punches of Hurricane
Katrina in late August and then Hurricane Rita a month later
shut down production of a specialty prized on local menus.

The first oyster boats went out over the weekend in
Terrebonne Parish, southwest of New Orleans, bringing a limited
haul into nearby processing plants.

"Oysters are back, and it feels good," said Mike Voisin, a
seventh-generation Louisiana oyster farmer in Houma, Louisiana,
who opened his plant for its full shift on Monday.

The storms killed much of the state's shellfish,
particularly those east of the Mississippi River and near New
Orleans, where Katrina also sent boats deep inland, tore up
docks and wrecked conveyors used to unload the oysters.

Louisiana officials then halted commercial harvesting out
of concern that remaining oysters were absorbing bacteria from
overrun sewer systems or chemicals carried out by flooding.

But officials on Friday cleared about half of Louisiana's
designated beds, which sprawl over some 2 million coastal acres
, after determining that there was no health risk.

The remaining beds continue to show unacceptably high
levels of bacteria or other contaminants in the surrounding
water and remain closed, said Kristen Meyer, a spokeswoman for
the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

Voisin, who is also head of the Louisiana Oyster Task
Force, an industry group, estimated the state would harvest
about 100 million pounds (45 million kg) of oysters, down from
a more typical 250 million pounds (113 million kg).

The disruption has pushed prices higher, with retail prices
expected to be up over 50 percent to near $12 or so per pound
for oyster meat, he said.

At P&J Oyster Co. in New Orleans, the oldest U.S. shucking
plant, Al Sunseri ran his first full shift on Monday, although
production was limited to only about a quarter of normal.

"It's kind of scary even looking at it, but I'll probably
produce 300 pounds to 400 pounds (136 kg to 181 kg) of meat
today," he said.

Local restaurants already back in business have been keen
to start serving oysters again and more restaurants are
expected to open in the next month, he said.

Voisin said the Louisiana oyster industry could look toward
marketing high-end oysters according to their area of harvest,
since each area has a different taste. That could help move a
battered industry away from commodity pricing and shore up the
profit margins.

"Katrina and Rita are not going to kick us out of
Louisiana," he said.