Al Sunseri can get oysters shipped from the Pacific Northwest, the mid-Atlantic coast or the Northeast if he needs to, but the customers of his family-owned oyster business in the French Quarter — mostly New Orleans restaurateurs — have palates and recipes geared to the salinity and texture of the Gulf Coast variety.
"Chefs from down here do not like using oysters from other areas of the country," he said. "It's a different product. I've done it in the past, but it's not something they are particularly keen on."
How much of a choice those chefs will have was a big question this week as a huge oil slick floated 20 miles from Louisiana's delicate, seafood-abundant coastline. By Wednesday afternoon it covered thousands of square miles and was being fed at the rate of 42,000 gallons a day from an undersea leak — a bitter, lingering reminder of last week's explosion that destroyed a $560 million oil rig and most likely killed the 11 men still listed as missing.
"All we can do is pray and hope that these people are able to cap this well and collect the leaking oil," he said.
Mike Voisin, a Louisiana seafood dealer and member of the board of the Gulf Oyster Industry Council, said the oil could have a huge impact on an oyster industry that he estimates has a $500 million-a-year economic impact along the Gulf Coast, more than half of that in Louisiana.
Shrimpers are worried too. Louisiana officials gave them special permission to harvest white shrimp in some areas seen as threatened by the oil slick.
Kyle Plotkin, a spokesman for Gov. Bobby Jindal, said the state wants to let shrimpers "harvest this marketable crop before the potential impact of the oil spill."
At the Sunseri family's P&J Oyster Co. on Wednesday, there was no sign of imminent shortage. About a dozen women worked intently, hammering the curved blades of wooden-handled oyster knives into the slits of the craggy shells, prying them open, slipping out the meat and dropping the empties with a glass-like clink onto steadily mounting piles.
"For cooking there's not an oyster around that's close to the Gulf oysters," said Kevin Vizard, a former Commander's Palace chef, now the owner of Vizard's on Magazine Street. Warmer Gulf waters produce bigger, meatier oysters he said. "They are perfect for char-broiled oysters or fried oysters."
Nearby, in an office cluttered with family memorabilia, paper work and maps of the coastline, Al's brother Sal said the oil slick is just the latest affront to the industry. He can tick off a several others: Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Gustav in 2008, federal proposals — shelved for now — to restrict consumption of raw Gulf oysters. Most recently, there was the temporary closure of several oyster beds after the outbreak of norovirus — although it was never clear whether the oysters became infected in the water or in post-harvest handling.
"It's truly building character for Louisiana oystermen," he joked.
Wilbert Collins, a 73-year-old third-generation oysterman who works 2,500 acres of marshes and bayous, harvesting from beds his family has leased from the state since the 1930s, knows all about those problems. He said he has considered pulling out of the business a time or two since Katrina hit in 2005, stirring up pollution and leaving a thick sludge along his harvest areas. Oil from last week's explosion was close enough for concern Wednesday night, but distant enough to give him hope.
"It's worrying, you know," he said. "You don't know how long you might have to stay closed."
At the venerable Felix's Restaurant and Oyster Bar in the French Quarter, owner John Rotanti, whose family bought the business in the 1940s, kept an eye on cable news channels at lunch time, eager for news on a Coast Guard plan to try to burn off the worst of the oil before it hit shore.
"I guess it could theoretically really hurt the shrimp, the small finfish that are growing in the marshes," said Rotanti. "We just don't know."
All species are vulnerable, said Patrick Banks, head of the state Department of Wildlife & Fisheries' oyster program. But oysters are especially at risk because "they can't move away."
"This time of year, the animals are gearing up for reproduction," she added. Depending on the amount of oil ingested, they might survive but be unable or less able to reproduce. "That could have a much larger population impact in year down the line."
Ray Gildea (GILL' day), a Jackson, Miss., resident and frequent New Orleans visitor said he was a bit worried that the price of raw oysters, which he has enjoyed regularly at Felix's since childhood, will be affected by the oil. "Are people willing to pay twice what they usually would for oysters?" he asked, standing at the bar over a few glistening oysters on the half shell.