WILLAPA BAY - Days after the start of the BP oil spill in the Gulf, a Los Angeles Times story reported that some of the oyster harvesting beds west of the Mississippi River had been closed by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. More closures followed, as a precautionary measure. And now that the amount of oil and dispersant has increased, oyster harvests are strongly threatened.

But even under the cloud of this Deepwater Horizon disaster, which packs potential for causing long-lingering damage to the ecosystem, consumers still want oysters on the table. The question now is where will they come from?

On Saturday from his home in Nahcotta, University of Washington Biologist Alan Trimble said, "The Gulf Coast was sort of the last place in the U.S. that had reasonable native oyster production for consumption on the south and east parts of the United States."

And now that media reports indicate that in many parts of the gulf coast, oyster production has come to a screeching halt, seafood buyers are apparently investigating the possibility of purchasing oysters grown in our area as a way to fill at least the immediate need. Willapa Bay growers are already receiving inquiries about shipping oysters. "Everybody's getting phone calls," Trimble said. "There are restaurants trying to serve oysters and they don't have them. They're searching all over the place."

Seafood buyers are investigating what they can do to line up the supply. Trimble said yes, they've approached companies here and that the final decision will more than likely hinge on the dollar amount Willapa Bay oysters can bring when shipped outside of this state. "Demand should drive market prices up and that should drive production up here." Trimble added that there is potentially a pretty big market opportunity for places with clean water and adequate hatchery production to ramp up and take advantage of the situation.

Time will tell But basically, just 44 days into the Gulf spill, it might be too early to tell how high prices will go or how long the demand will last. Trimble said damage to the Gulf ecosystem could linger for years. Over the last week, TV news shows have reported that the toxic stew of oil and chemical dispersant is causing BP clean up personnel to fall ill, so what is it doing to the Gulf's seafood population?

Trimble explained that oyster larvae are in the water column for two to three weeks, depending on how warm the water is, along with other factors. Speaking of the Gulf, he said, "I don't know exactly when they spawn, but probably right about now - a May, June, July timeframe." He stressed that if the oil and chemicals remain in the water through August, "it will certainly kill little oysters that it comes in contact with on the beach. If the oil really wipes out this year's age class - the recruitment class - and you have lousy reproduction this year, then two or three years from now you begin to have the legacy effect."

And now, it appears that oil probably will continue to spew until August, when two relief wells are scheduled for completion. Monday, on ABC News, Matt Guttman reported from Louisiana, calling BP's current attempt to stop the oil, "the riskiest procedure yet" as they proceed into the seventh try at containing the leak, this time by slicing open the pipeline and lowering a small dome. Nancy Kinner PhD., professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Hampshire, appeared on Guttman's report, saying that between now and August, as much as 40 million gallons of oil could be released from the spill.

June 1 was the start of the Atlantic hurricane season. An Associated Press story on Sunday said the relief well completion time frame is smack dab in the middle of the season, presenting the bleak possibility tht oil and chemicals could be pushed farther into estuaries and coastal marshes.

Unfit for consumption? Trimble said that while Gulf fishermen could feasibly fish down the standing stock of adult oysters for a couple of years, due to failed recruitment the replacement numbers probably wouldn't be adequate. He explained that adult oysters can tough it out for a while, tightly closing their shells while they hope for better water quality.

Even if fishermen in the Gulf get the go ahead to harvest this year's adults, it could end up as a lost cause. They could be deemed unfit for human consumption. Trimble said there's going to be a huge battle between Gulf fishermen and the regulators, with fishermen wanting to stay in business and regulators saying the oysters are a health risk.

Can Willapa step up? Can Willapa Bay oyster production meet the demand?

Trimble said that the native oyster population on the Gulf Coast is quite large. It is a fishery industry there. Nature takes its course in spawning and seeding. But nature is now being threatened.

He explained that the process in Willapa Bay "is aquaculture," so if the market price can support it, growers here can get seed (larvae) from hatcheries, grow them out and ship them. This is in addition to what is naturally reproduced in the bay. As for those that are spawned and set without hatchery involvement, Trimble said that recent history has seen less than excellent recruitment. "It hasn't been going well for the last four or five years. So, the oyster reserves themselves, the standing stock of naturally set oysters has been declining over the years."

As far as seed, Trimble said that it comes from hatcheries in Hood Canal's Dabob Bay and Netarts Bay, Ore., and that obtaining enough is often difficult. He said, "Hatchery output has been pretty low. They've been having problems in the hatcheries in the last few years with a number of issues, though it's not completely clear what all the problems are."

These two factors combined mean that in Willapa Bay, stocks are lower than they would otherwise be. Even though, according to Trimble, there's an almost uncountable number of oysters in the bay, harvesting can present some challenges. He explained that, "The easy ones to pick aren't around. It doesn't take a lot of effort to go wandering around the bay and find lots of lots of oysters in hard places to pick - places where the mud is soft or where the density is low. There's lots of them spread out all over the place. But if you're paying somebody to do this and the price is low, it's hard to justify it."

Cost of manpower That's one more reason prices might have to rise significantly in order to justify the extra effort to meet this new demand from the Gulf shortages - the cost of manpower. Speaking recently at a meeting of the Willapa Bay Interpretive Center in Nahcotta, local oysterman Dennis Tufts said there are currently about 1,000 workers, year around, in the Willapa Bay oyster industry.

But to accelerate production immediately, would more people have to be hired? It might take some time to figure that out.

As Trimble explained, the need for oysters in the south and east is immediate. And if the Gulf fishermen are still shut down or just falling short into November and December, they won't be able to meet a seasonal spike in demand then. That's when this country's love for oyster dressing pumps up sales for those Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts. And while nobody seems to know for sure at this point, the Gulf shortage of oysters could drag on for years if the area's ecosystem is severely damaged. Trimble said that could certainly happen. More than 20 years ago, the Exxon Valdez crude oil spill damaged the remote Prince William Sound area of Alaska. Even before the Gulf spill, Wikipedia reported the Exxon Valdez catastrophe to be one of the worst human-caused environmental disasters in U.S. history. And soon after the Gulf spill, news reports said it had surpassed the damage caused by the Valdez. "Alaska is still messed up and everybody's forgetting that," Trimble said.

Where is Willapa's competition? Looking at the world issues with oysters, there's not a lot of competition for Willapa Bay. Trimble said, for example, "Chesapeake Bay used to have a hundred times the size of oyster production as we have. And now, it's much less than it is here. And there's no prospect of that looking like it's going to turn around anytime soon, because Chesapeake Bay is surrounded by 25 million people."

So, what ends up in that bay from that area's watershed? Trimble said that lawn chemicals, car tires and a host of other environmental demons of over-population contaminate the water. The result is problems in reproduction of the bay's native oysters. And, EPA won't allow introduction of non-native species into the bay. So, cross off Chesapeake Bay from a list of possible competitors.

"France and all around Europe have had viral problems with these same (Japanese) Pacific oysters, not native there. They have huge disease problems and their production is down to 20 or 30 percent of what it was three or four years ago. They're really in trouble," Trimble explained.

How about Asia? Trimble commented, "Asia eats everything that they produce, so they're not going to be looking for an export market."

A difference in oysters When Tufts spoke at the Interpretive Center, he said that oysters here are grown for up to four years and are larger than those produced in some other regions. Trimble said he recently found one that was the size of his shoe. And while that might be an extreme even for Willapa Bay, he acknowledges the difference between what is grown here versus what is in demand elsewhere. He explained, "People on the east coast like eating east coast oysters. They're little watery thin oysters."

So how would growers here work around this? Trimble said it might actually be an advantage. He explained that oysters here, at eight months old, are the same as those little east coast oysters. So technically, Willapa Bay oysters could be picked at this young age, "Which means this really is a market opportunity. It's not like you have to wait two or three years to sell your crop. You could be planting now and next spring, you're already ready to ship."

But the final decision as to whether or not oysters are shipped from here to the south and eastern parts of the country might truly hang on how far the demand drives up prices.

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