Oyster experts are reporting that when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent a diver down after a lost cage last week, they found the bottom of the Gulf area where they were working covered with a thick layer of brown “chocolate” ooze.

gulf-oyster-featured.jpgAll the oysters in the cages were dead.

“How can we possibility clean it up from bottom?” One expert asked.

In the 55 days since the BP oil spill began off the coast of Louisiana, anxiety about what might happen to Gulf seafood is being replaced by acceptance of a grim reality.

The 134-year-old P&J Oyster Company, supplier to some of the best known New Orleans French Quarter restaurants, has stopped shucking oysters and laid off its workers who made up to $24 an hour.

Losing a seafood processor like P&J’s means New Orleans restaurants are going to have to do something that not even Hurricane Katrina forced them to do: change their menus.  Some are already making those preparations.

Flying in Dover sole or returning to a time when chicken livers were on its menu are among the possibilities being seriously considered at Galatorie’s.

The French Quarter restaurant has been in business since 1905, and is already scrambling to fill its daily demand for oysters with supplies from the East and West coasts.

At the Bourbon House, which features a large well-known raw bar, owners have sampled oysters from Oregon, but did not find them an acceptable substitute.  If they cannot get Gulf oysters, one possibility being considered is scallops for shucking and broiling at the bar.

At Drago’s, with two New Orleans restaurants, raw oysters on the half shell are no longer an option.  Char-grilled oysters were still available plus a new alternative of char-grilled mussels from Canada.    

Supply shortages will also mean oysters won’t be on the regular menu at some restaurants, such as Charlie’s Seafood in New Orleans.  You will have to ask around.

While the area in the Gulf of Mexico that is closed to all commercial and recreational fishing has not changed since June 7, the ban covers 78,264 square miles or almost one-third of all Gulf waters under federal jurisdiction.   

The five states are in charge of closures of their local waters, which have so far mostly impacted Louisiana.

While those closures impact both shell and finfish, oysters remain the most indigenous Gulf seafood.

Gulf restaurants that want to fill tourist appetites for Gulf seafood purchase a large percentage of the $60 million harvest of both whole (raw on the half shell) and shucked oysters for poached, fired, and sautéed.   

It’s that circle that makes the Gulf economy go around, and that’s what might lost for years because of the spill.