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Gulf Coast oyster trade still struggling

Sam Eaton Jun 13, 2006

PHOTO GALLERY: Gulf Coast oyster trade


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Hurricane season is here again, and in Florida anxious eyes are following Alberto. Although some evacuations have been ordered, the latest word is that the storm may weaken and fall short of hurricane strength before it hits land.

In New Orleans, some businesses are trying to re-build from Katrina last year. Louisiana’s $300 million dollar oyster business needs hungry tourists. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton has more.

SAM EATON: If you’ve slurped oysters on the half shell at the Bourbon House or Redfish or any of the other dozens of famed French Quarter oyster houses, chances are they came from Sal Sunseri’s 130-year old P&J Oyster Company.

Distributing tens of thousands of these briny bivalves a day in post-Katrina New Orleans is no mean task.

Sunseri is still short staffed. He no longer works just the business side of the oyster trade. He’s filling in as a delivery man too.

[ Sunseri: “Watch out. Watch this way because there’s a left turn. You see the one way? The sign’s still not fixed.” ]

We maneuver a bulky refrigeration truck through the French Quarter’s narrow streets, stopping every few blocks to unload sacks of live oysters.

Each feels like your handling a bag of rocks.

[ Sunseri: “I’m 45 years old. But that’s OK I’m as strong as I was when I was in college. Feeling good.” ]

Three hundred oysters sacks later the truck rolls back into the warehouse on Toulouse Street where Vietnamese women are shucking oysters by the thousands.

Sunseri says the business is back up to about 80-percent of what it was before Katrina.

But he’s not out of the woods just yet.

SAL SUNSERI: This next five months or so are going to be very critical. You’re going to have a lot of places not make it due to a lack of sales. And that’s what I’m concerned about.

He says with no conventions in New Orleans now and few tourists willing to brave the Louisiana heat, dozens of restaurants hanging on by a thread may not make it through the summer.

Sunseri says no matter what happens he’s in it for the long haul.

SUNSERI: What this city needs right now, more than ever, is for existing companies to stick through it and stay afloat and work hard and get better.

It’s not just the restaurant business Sunseri’s rooting for.

Katrina wiped out oyster beds and infrastructure all across the Gulf Coast, leaving long-time growers like Mitchell Jurisich Jr. to pick up the pieces.

At a battered, temporary dock in Buras, Louisiana, Jurisich unloads his catch.

He says he’s only operating at 30 percent and it will be years before he’s back to normal.

But like Sunseri, Jurisich isn’t willing to give up.

MITCHELL JURISICH JR: As long as I’ve got one live oyster I’ll keep coming back because if there’s one he’ll make others, you know, so it gives us hope.

He says Mother Nature takes. But she also has a way of giving back.

In New Orleans I’m Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

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