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Oyster Restoration, Supply, Falls Behind Demand

Oyster restoration projects, such as the effort to bring back the native Olympia oyster to some of the inland waters of Southern California, might someday replace Gulf oysters that go missing from the BP oil spill.

But, as promising as those restoration projects are, they will won’t be making a meaningful contribution to fulfilling demand for oysters in the near future.

oyster-beds-featured.jpg“It is unlikely that restoration projects in Southern California would result in commercialization of the delectable Olympia oyster,”says KZO Education’s Phil Cruver, “but they could enable recreational harvesting once the water quality in bays and estuaries improves.”

The hit the Gulf oyster industry is taking from BP oil continuing to gush from the ocean flow is raising public awareness about shellfish restoration projects around the globe.  

In its introduction, the authors of a 2009 study titled “Shellfish At Risk” said, “The beds, banks, and reefs formed by the accumulation of countless generations of these bivalve mollusks settling upon one another have largely been taken for granted.  Only recently has there been recognition of the vital ecological roles they play in coastal bays and estuaries around the world.”

Oysters, the study said, provide critical habitat to fish, crabs, and birds; filter water, and stabilize coastlines.

While the 2009 report says there has been a “profound loss” of oyster reefs around the world from everything from coastal development to destructive fishing practices, there is also evidence that restoration works.

The Pacific Northwest, Chesapeake Bay, and San Francisco, Tiburon, and Tomales Bays in California have all made progress.  The nonprofit Puget Sound Restoration Fund has planted 10 million native oysters at 80 sites with volunteer labor.

There is large distance between restoration that brings back some recreational oyster areas to one that supports commercial harvesting.  Those who know the business say that it is not possible to produce more oysters just because there is demand.

Bill Dewey of the Seattle-based Taylor Shellfish Co. says it takes two to four years to grow oysters, which makes responding to new demand difficult at best.

“The Gulf, and Louisiana in particular, is the leading oyster-producing area in the country, and so when they go down it creates a huge void,” Dewey said.

The market for Gulf oysters is certainly sending out price signals that ordinarily would attract new supplies.   Last April, Gulf oysters might fetch $30 a gallon.  Today, there are reports of sales in the $55 to $80 per gallon range.  Most are looking to Florida and the East Coast to make up some of that demand.

As of 5 p.m. local time yesterday, the federal fish closure area was reduced to 33 percent of the U.S. economic zone in the Gulf, down from 36 percent.

The area closed to both commercial and recreational fishing stands at 78,597 square miles.  In addition, numerous state waters are closed to both fishing and shell fishing by orders from the Gulf states.   

The closed federal water area is as large as the State of Nebraska.

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