A waiter at City Diner and Oyster Bar in Corpus Christi broke the appalling news to my wife, in-laws and me last weekend as we made a trip to the coast: No fresh Texas oysters on the half-shell. Not one. Sorry, he said. Dealer prices a week into the start of Texas' oyster harvest from public leases were so high that the diner -- located on Water Street, no less -- would have to charge $20 a dozen to cover costs. Customers aren't willing to pay that, he said, so his was an oysterless bar.
At least that has to be good news for Texas oystermen, right? High prices for their product must be good for them.
Not quite. Lance Robinson, director for Texas Parks and Wildlife's upper coast region, tells City of Ate that a complicated mix of factors has left some Texas oyster boats tied up at the docks despite abnormally high prices.
Before the official Texas oyster season began November 1, Robinson says, dealers were paying up to $40 for a 110-pound sack of fresh oysters from private reefs, or more than double the typical price. It was partly a form of speculation, with prices ratcheting up as dealers tried to factor in potential shortages caused by damage to Louisiana's beds by the BP oil spill. Meanwhile, unfounded fears of oil contamination, stoked partly by the East Coast media, along with the high prices, tamped down demand. Now, dealers are telling Robinson that they're storing stocks of higher-priced shellfish and holding off buying more until they can clear inventories from their coolers.
When the Texas season opened, the price had fallen to around $25 a sack, Robinson says, and with the Louisiana season opening next week, the price is expected to come closer to $20.
"You're talking about a product that has a shelf life you have to be sensitive to," Robinson says, so dealers' stocks won't hold out forever.
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Louisiana could be the biggest factor for the season; it's just not clear how. The state's oystermen typically harvest more than twice Texas' catch, which fell to 3 million pounds of meat last year, down from the typical 5-6 million pounds partly because of damage to Galveston's oyster beds caused by Hurricane Ike.
So, overall supplies could be low, but so could demand. "A lot of the gulf's oysters end up in the Chesapeake Bay area," Robinson says. Will consumers there will be unwilling to trust seafood from the gulf post-BP, despite Robinson's assertion that thanks to the spill, the gulf produces some of the most highly tested seafood in the nation, and Texas oyster beds were untouched by the oil?
In other words, our chance of getting a bellyful of affordable, chilled Texas oysters is just too damn complicated to predict, thanks to speculation, a price boom, a potential shortage and maybe a fall in demand.
"As of today, I think that's a very valid statement," Robinson says.