Red Tide Rising
While we’re all enjoying this cooler weather, the reality of the great drought we’re in has reared its ugly head again.
From water restrictions and devastating fires to low lake and aquifer levels and crops and livestock parched beyond compare, the beleaguered condition of our state looks like something out of the book of Exodus. Now, our coastal bays are riddled with a red tide that has spurred the Texas Department of State Health Services to ban the opening of Texas Gulf Coast oyster harvest season—scheduled to open November 1st—indefinitely.
The record-breaking heat coupled with the absence of rain has brought the salinity up in Texas bays and kept rivers from being able to flush out what is considered the largest red tide outbreak in more than a decade. And while some remain optimistic that there is still hope for one of Texas’s most prized resources later in the November to April season, many are beginning to think the season may be completely wiped out.
The news means a few adjustments for Austin area chefs who will have to scramble to source local oysters from slightly less local locations, namely Louisiana and Florida. It also means a list of other things including a higher cost to import, a possible shortage of oysters in other Gulf state reefs, and the potential of losing a number of hard working oysterman who have already been hit hard with Katrina, the BP Oil Spill, and now a second straight year of red tide outbreak in public fisheries.
It’s a perfect example of just how connected restaurateurs are with their purveyors. Just a week ago, Uchiko chef Paul Qui who sourced Texas Gulf oysters safely from the Rockport area. “They’re hands down some of the best oysters I’ve ever had,” says Qui. “Clean, clear, crisp and with a touch of brine.”
The salinity is just way to high in the bay and the drought is causing it to fester. Unfortunately a little bit of rain won’t help. In fact, I’d say it would be like pouring gasoline on a fire.
It just goes to show how quickly a red tide can spread. The algal bloom that causes red tide contains a toxin that can seep through oyster shells and into the tissue that can poison consumers who eat them with symptoms of nausea and dizziness, among other things. Though the algae does not hurt oysters, it does kill fish. This year’s red tide has already claimed more than three-million fish, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Red tides are not unusual along the Gulf, but it is particularly bad this year because of the drought. “We really need some big cold fronts and northern winds to push it out. And we really just need a lot of rain,” says Jim Gossen, owner of Louisiana Foods one of the most respected seafood wholesale companies in the state since the late 1970s.
“The salinity is just way too high in the bay and the drought is causing it to fester. Unfortunately a little bit of rain won’t help. In fact, I’d say it would be like pouring gasoline on a fire. The algae will just fight harder to grow if just a little bit of fresh water is dumped on it. We need BIG rain to flush this out.”
Gossen’s history with the Texas seafood industry runs deep. And he’s seen events like this happen before. “I’m looking at probably a good increase in prices for oysters this year as well a shortage. It’s going to be a double whammie for people like me. And even worse for the oysterman,” says Gossen who, like many wholesalers and restaurant owners, will be looking to the Louisiana, Florida, and northeast markets for oyster supplies in the next few months.
In the Texas Gulf, the peak of the season is usually in February, which means local oysters may still have enough time to make a comeback in early 2012.
“People are willing to try oysters from places like Louisiana, but it’s the cost of shipping them that hurts the most,” says Carol Huntsberger of longtime Austin seafood purveyor and restaurant Quality Seafood Company. “When they’re trucked in on ice from the our own bays, it’s cheap compared to having to fly them her in special air cargo boxes.” Huntsberger estimates the cost difference is anywhere from 40-50 cents a pound for Texas oysters compared to $1.05 a pound for oysters shipped from nearby states, a cost that adds up for restaurants and ultimately consumers.
In the 1800s, Texas Gulf oysters were the more popular item at Texas oyster bars, but according to Texas Eats, a new book to be released in March 2012 by acclaimed Texas food writer and historian, Robb Walsh, Texas lost it’s sophistication in the oyster industry shortly after the railroad when trains made it possible to ship oysters from all over the country. I more recent years, it hasn’t helped the Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ike, the BP Oil Spill and numerous red tide outbreaks have stifled the industry altogether.
The season may be halted for a while, but it’s important to know a thing or two about the life of an oyster to understand why this may not be such a bad thing. According to Walsh’s book, the season of an oyster begins in the fall or early winter when cold weather and falling water temperatures cause them to store a carbohydrate compound called glycogen, which makes the oysters plump and sweet. That’s why eating oysters have always been associated with the mid-winter holiday season. In the Texas Gulf, the peak of the season is usually in February, which means local oysters may still have enough time to make a comeback in early 2012—if we get rain, of course.
But despite those who may think the season may be over before it even began, Huntsberger remains optimistic that we’ll still see Texas Gulf oysters on restaurant tables yet. “I don’t think this is the end of the season. This same thing happened last year and we happened to open the season later in the year,” says Huntsberger. “People forget that the season used to open in September. We’ll get rain and cooler temperatures that will kill the red tide we have now. Mother Nature always has a way of working this sort of thing out.”