"Under normal circumstances, there'd be no way to supply the demand after the fall we had, but because of the economy, the demand is real low," says Curt Pannagl, an oyster broker and harvester based in Hopedale.
While Louisiana oysters are commonplace and inexpensive at home, they are a luxury food item in other markets. Mike Voisin, president of Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, says 80 percent of Louisiana oysters are eaten in fine-dining restaurants, mostly outside of the state. "Here we consider oysters a staple, like milk and rice somewhere else, but in these other places it's like lobster and people are just ordering less of it," Voisin says.
The falling demand has also kept local oyster prices relatively stable this year, despite the diminished Louisiana harvest, he says. The average wholesale price dealers have paid for Louisiana oysters dockside has been $2.48 per pound over the past 10 years, according to data collected by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The yearly average increased from $2.51 per pound in 2004, before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, to $3.15 per pound in 2006. Wildlife and Fisheries attributed the increase to decreased supplies after the storms. Prices fell slightly last year, but oyster growers and dealers report prices have remained fairly stable this year, despite a greatly reduced harvest. They attribute this to a sharp decrease in demand caused by the national recession. Statistical data on prices for this year is not yet available from Wildlife and Fisheries.
Meanwhile, the high quality of Louisiana oysters getting to the restaurants and markets today is partially due to the storms that damaged so much of the crop. While the storms smothered millions of oysters under mud and grasses churned up by the storms, many of those that survived benefited from the richer nutrients lingering in the water. John Supan, an oyster expert with LSU's Sea Grant program, explains that the filter-feeding oysters grow more plump and meaty with so much more food kicked loose by the storms.
"We're really seeing oysters fattening up now and it's still early in the season," Supan says. — McNulty