NEW ORLEANS – Facing an uncertain future, oyster industry leaders met Tuesday at UNO with the goal of coming up with ways to jump start their industry.
The 15-member panel, which includes oyster fishermen and processors along with representatives from several government agencies, is tasked with making recommendations for how to best use BP money to help the oyster industry, which is hurting.
“We will have half the business, I believe, for the next two to three years,” Al Sunseri said. “And that’s being hopeful.”
Sunseri runs the P&J Oyster Company in the French Quarter, which supplies oysters to around 100 New Orleans area restaurants.
When asked how long it would be before his industry returned to pre-BP oil spill levels, Sunseri replied, “If I was to make a guess right now, we’re looking at two to three years, minimum.”
“Now, with a very limited amount of oysters, and no market, it’s very scary,” Mitchell Jurisich added. “We’re going to have to rebuild our market and it’s going to take time.”
Jurisich is a third generation oysterman, based in Plaquemines Parish. He and Sunseri are part of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Oyster Advisory Committee.
The oil spill brought the group together, but their long-term goal is to protect oyster beds while the state uses fresh water diversions — in other words, to find ways for the oyster industry and coastal restoration to co-exist.
Fresh water diversions lower the salinity in the water, which can kill oysters.
“I think it’s absolutely possible,” Garret Graves said. “I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t achieve that goal.”
Graves is the chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. He is Jindal’s top coastal adviser.
“We hope to walk out of this committee in a few months with a plan to actually have more acres of productive oyster leases and oyster reefs than we’ve ever had before in South Louisiana,” Graves added.
In the meantime, the industry faces massive hurdles. Demand for oysters nationwide, according to Mitchell Jurisich, has never been lower.
“I’m hoping that we can get a demand back sometime in 2011,” Jurisich said.
He expects to start farming his oyster leases again in February, hoping demand for his oysters will be there.