NEW ORLEANS – NEW ORLEANS (AP) — An early morning workday ritual — the shucking of small mountains of oysters for New Orleans restaurants — fell victim to the BP offshore oil spill Thursday at a 134-year-old French Quarter oyster house where neighbors treated the news like a death in the family.
Amid the din of nearly a dozen men and women hammering and prying at the last piles bags of craggy oyster shells at P&J Oyster Co., Jerry Amato wandered in bearing comfort food: aluminum trays full of scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits and biscuits.
"That's what we do in New Orleans. After the funeral, we bring food," said Amato, proprietor of Mother's Restaurant.
P&J isn't quite dead yet but, barring an unforeseen reopening of the oyster beds that supply the business, Thursday was to be the final day of shucking at the family owned business.
"I'm going to try and buy a few shucked oysters from some people in Alabama that are still processing oysters and once they stop, I'm done," said Al Sunseri, who, along with his brother Sal, runs the business that opened in 1876.
Sunseri isn't sure what will happen to P&J and its employees in the long haul. On Thursday morning he walked through the cavernous shucking area and loading dock on Toulouse Street and nodded toward the shuckers still working with industrial fervor.
"These ladies here, those guys — I grew up with them. We were in our 20s when we started," said Sunseri, 52.
Curiosity seekers included Jim Cottrell, executive with a nearby antiques store, who said he'd always meant to drop by because, "I wanted to see exactly how they do this."
Other Louisiana oyster companies say their oyster supplies are also dwindling, prices are rising and the future of their business remains stark and uncertain.
"The same thing happening over at P&J is happening over here also," said John Tesvich, owner of Ameripure Oyster Co. in Franklin, La. His company sells pasteurized oysters to restaurants around the country.
Tesvich said Ameripure may be able to hold on a little longer because it cultivates and harvests its own oysters, supplemented by suppliers. "But they're on the point of depletion now," said Tesvich, adding he's hoping for "a few more good weeks."
Oyster growers and harvesters are facing a double threat.
On the one hand, oil gushing from the blown-out well off Louisiana could contaminate the beds, killing the oysters or rendering them unsafe to eat. On the other hand, a method of fighting the encroaching oil by opening inland water diversion gates in hopes of pushing the oil back also could kill oysters. The fresh inland water dilutes saltier waters oysters need to thrive.
Complicating the problem: It's spawning season for young oysters that usually take 18 to 24 months to grow to market size.
Third-generation oyster farmer Wilbert Collins, 73, said it could take three years to replenish the stock on some of his leases where fresh water is encroaching.
Collins said he owns three boats. Two are idle and one is doing oil cleanup work. He's not sure what the future holds for his business — or for his sons and grandson who work with him.
John Rotonti, owner of Felix's Oyster Bar and Restaurant, said he has yet to run out of oysters for the raw bar at his eatery just off Bourbon Street in the French Quarter tourist district. Still, he's having to absorb price hikes and uncertain supplies.
At some point, he said, he'll have to close the raw bar that is the trademark of his business and probably lay off a half-dozen shuckers.
Tesvich, Sunseri and Kevin Voisin — an executive with family owned Houma oyster processor Motivatit Seafood — all say they worry not just for themselves but for their workers. Some of their employees have been with the companies for years.
"There's 200 families that eat because Motivatit Seafood exists," Voisin said.
The owners of the companies said they are now at varying stages of filing claims for aid from the oil giant BP, which has spent weeks trying to stop the oil spewing into the Gulf.
At P&J, longtime employee Wayne Gordon, 42, said his emotions ran the gamut from pain at the prospect of losing a job he's held since he was 18 and anger at what he sees as the incompetence that caused the unending underwater gusher.
"Twenty-four years," Gordon said as he took a break in the room where freshly shucked oysters were being packed into plastic cartons. "I cannot imagine not being here."