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Thursday, November 13, 2014

An oyster shortage could mean higher prices this season

Tough Shuck

Posted by Kinsey Gidick on Thu, Nov 13, 2014 at 1:12 PM

Due to a perfect storm of new regulations, less pickers, and weird weather, oysters may be hard to come by - C. HAINES
  • C. Haines
  • Due to a perfect storm of new regulations, less pickers, and weird weather, oysters may be hard to come by
Last weekend there were roughly seven ticketed oyster roasts happening throughout the Lowcountry, not to mention the dozens of backyard parties. If there's one thing Charlestonians can agree on this time of year, it's a bipartisan appreciation for steamed bivalves. Only problem? There seems to be an oyster shortage.

Harry Root discovered the situation last weekend. The owner of GrassRoots Wine was planning his annual oyster roast when he called his usual supplier Coastal Caterers. "They said there was a shortage," Root says. "They said not many oyster harvesters had really gotten going yet." Still in need of a few bushels, Root gave LocalOysters.com in McClellanville a call and they were sold out too. He eventually tracked down more oysters from Tobias Seafood on Isle of Palms, but the search left him wondering, what gives? "I'm not sure if it's a shortage or just a couple of guys whose normal sources were low," Root says.

Turns out, there is a problem.

"We're not getting the Gulfs like we did last year," Crosby's Seafood's Will Crisel says. "And the Virginia's are a bit more expensive." Crisel believes the lack of oysters is due to market demand across the Southeast. While last year a 40-pound bag of singles from Virginia sold at his store for $50, this year it's $65. With the rise in cost and shipping prices, comes the need to order more oysters to make it profitable. "I've also heard SCDNR has shut down some beds or put stricter regulations on what size oysters they can get," says Crisel.

click to enlarge Get 'em while they're hot - C. HAINES FILE PHOTO
  • C. Haines file photo
  • Get 'em while they're hot
That's true. "Basically all oysters have to be at least three inches," LocalOysters.com's Carrie Spahr says. In the past there have been no S.C. Department of Natural Resource size regulations. The change means cleaning and culling oysters to get down to the three-inchers takes more time.

SCDNR biologist Nancy Hadley says the size requirement is an attempt to preserve South Carolina's oyster resources. "Last year was not a great year for oysters," she explains "We had all that rain that killed some oysters. They didn't grow well because the salinity was too low. They needed a bit of a break." The three-inch rule is a way for SCDNR to force oystermen to cull in place (a regulation that's been on the books for years), rather than just tossing out spat once back on shore. But while many oysterman, like Carrie's husband Jeff, have been practicing the cull in place practice since they started, it's the ones who ignore the rule, Jeff says, who have "clear cut state grounds." 

Carrie also thinks tidal factors are at play. "The tides have been really weird," she says. "They harvest during low tide and low tide several weeks out of this season has been before sunrise and after sunset." The problem: you need it to be daylight when oystering to be able to see the harvest. In fact, oystermen aren't even allowed to harvest when it's not daylight. "You can only start 30 minutes before sunrise and go until 30 minutes after sunset," Jeff explains.

On top of that, Carrie says the tides haven't been very low and the weather has been warm. The oysters Jeff and others are finding appear to have not have had the growth spurts they usually show by this time of year. "The old timers say we need colder weather," Carrie says. Jeff agrees. "We just need one cold snap," he says.

Until then, the Spahrs have already sold out for the next two weekends and had to raise their prices this week. "Ours are now $45 a bushel," she says. LocalOysters.com charged $40 before. Others, like Tobias Seafood, have increased prices too. "We've been in business so long and we have lots of repeat customers," says Carrie. And while the couple thinks the regulations are good, charging more is tough. "It's not really pleasant to raise prices," says Carrie. "But we're trying to find to balance."

For Hadley, however, the real balance is in maintaining the ecosystem. "You want oysters all this year and none next? Or should we try to make it something we can continue to have?" says Hadley. "I mean, suck it up."

On the bright side, one new regulation could soon trigger a bit of an oyster harvest increase, at least in the commercial grounds. This year DNR has changed the oyster season from two seasons — fall/winter and winter/spring — to three. "Early season flips after Thanksgiving," says Hadley, and that will open new beds to oystermen. "Then it flips again to open different grounds for the Christmas season, which is the heaviest." A final season will begin around Jan. 23 just in time for the Southeastern Wildlife Expo and the Super Bowl. "We're hoping that will provide people places that have not already been harvested for those major demand times. Fisherman have been requesting that. Everyone thinks it's going to work," Hadley adds.

Add to all the oyster demand the fact that many oystermen are still completing the shrimping season and you've got the perfect storm for increased prices. "I don't think it's an oyster problem, it's a shortage of pickers," Tobias Seafood's Andrew Hiser agrees.

But while bushels this year may stretch shopper's budgets, it's important to keep in mind that, according to SCDNR, there are only 1,700 acres of state shellfish grounds for commercial or recreational oystering and another 2,400 acres of culture permits (oyster grounds contracted to private individuals or businesses to manage on their own). That's just a total of about 4,000 acres — a tiny ecosystem that requires a watchful eye to maintain. "In the long run, these regulations should ensure there are oysters to harvest for a long time," says Hadley.

So, should Charlestonians give up salty steamers? Hell no. Maybe it's just a matter of saving a buck by downgrading this season's oyster roast drink from champagne to the champagne of beers — after all, Miller High Life goes perfectly with a saltine topped Otter Island oyster.

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