After BP, a Fight to Explain That Oysters Are Safe to Eat

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Daniel Fromson


Before the asphalt era, the roads of Pass Christian, Mississippi, were paved with oyster shells. Remains from the Gulf Coast's largest oyster reef still coat the white-sand beaches along the scenic route into town, if not the streets, and oystering is a multi-million-dollar industry in the region. But it now coexists with casinos and Walmarts and car dealerships—and with neon-vested oil cleanup workers. They were still working last weekend while this historic shellfishing town of a few thousand held its first annual oyster festival, the same week that the 2010-2011 oyster season began. I visited last Saturday.

The main-festival planning meeting occurred on April 20. That was the day the oil rig exploded. "We thought, 'God, this is crazy,'" Renee Brooks, Pass Christian alderwoman-at-large and the organizer of the festival, told me. She was selling t-shirts to the crowd that had gathered for the festival, which was held in a parking lot next to the harbor. They were there to eat not only Mississippi oysters but also standard fair food and other specialties like crawfish pie and alligator on a stick.

Brooks explained that the disaster raised the stakes, transforming the festival into a much-needed opportunity to dispel the fears of impure seafood that have plagued the Gulf oyster industry. It's an industry that was already ailing. During my visit, I saw just how hard locals are working to replace fear with optimism. Still, it was difficult to ignore that the industry is suffering, and that no matter how many safe oysters are out there, Gulf seafood is still laced with the imagined taint of oil—even, I learned, in the region itself.

The weekend featured the "first annual shuck and run" fun runs, a children's fishing competition, and the crowning of 11th-grader Lauren Jenkins as the first Pearl of the Pass beauty queen. But the main staging area in the oyster awareness battle was a booth manned by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (DMR), sandwiched between the state-fair-style rotating swings ride and a stall selling bacon-wrapped jalapeños, with the deep blue Gulf right behind as a backdrop. Jessica Rankin, "Seafood Officer I" in the department's Seafood Technology Bureau, presided with colleagues over an ample spread of pamphlets and poster boards—including one, about oyster reef reconstruction, that made it clear that an oil spill was the last thing Pass Christian needed.

According to the DMR, before 2005 Mississippi produced more oysters than the entire U.S. East Coast. Hurricane Katrina destroyed between 90 and 95 percent of its oyster beds (and, perhaps more important to Pass Christian, roughly the same percentage of the town's houses). Although the reefs, thanks to recovery money, have now been rebuilt, low oxygen levels in the Gulf and high water temperatures—exacerbated, perhaps, by oily "black water" found near the reefs—have led to an oyster die-off this year. In samples taken near Pass Christian this September, between 80 and 90 percent of oysters per sample were dead. Stocks are so low that oystermen lobbied to restrict harvesting methods for the current season to a manual technique known as "tonging"—a move that has grounded many boats. One oyster processer, Darlene Kimball, of Kimball's Seafood, told the local newspaper that last year she had an average of 75 boats per day unload their catch. Last Thursday, there were 12.

They were sweet, with a Gulf Coast blandness my brine-raised New England palate wasn't used to—like once-feisty northerners retired to Florida rocking chairs.

For Rankin, however, the top priority wasn't discussing the state of the industry. It was reminding consumers that oysters are safe, with oil particles "well, well, well below levels of concern." The agency recently launched an outreach initiative, the Gulf Safe campaign, including flyers, posters, and newsletters, and Rankin had also taken her road show to September's Biloxi Seafood Festival and October's Jackson County Fair. Among the DMR's statistics: From the end of May to the end of September, it tested shrimp, crabs, finfish, and oysters for oil a total of 273 times. None showed contamination even close to harmful levels.

A dozen or so booths away, Jennifer Jenkins, who was selling local oysters barbecued and on the half-shell on behalf of processer and wholesaler Crystal Seas Oysters, was similarly upbeat. "We have had an unbelievable turnout," she told me. "We've sold more in half a day than I thought I'd sell all weekend." Alderwoman Brooks also pointed to the festival's strong turnout, especially at a Friday-night VIP event called Oyster Eve: "Two hundred people were here just gobbling up oysters, and that's what it's all about." But Jenkins added that the biggest problem in the wake of the disaster was that restaurants took oysters off their menus, and they have been slow to bring them back. At a restaurant just a few hundred feet from her booth, I saw exactly what she meant.

My only taste of oysters on Saturday came when some friends who wanted to sit and eat rather than stroll and graze led me to Shaggy's Harbor Bar & Grill, an archetypal seafood house overlooking oyster and shrimp boats tied to the docks. (We had just browsed through the festival for the first time, and although I would have preferred to eat there I figured Shaggy's would be just as good, if a bit more expensive.) When our dozen-oyster platters arrived—half-shells piled on rock salt and garnished with heaps of Saltines—I asked where the oysters came from.

Texas.

They were sweet, with a Gulf Coast blandness my brine-raised New England palate wasn't used to—like once-feisty northerners retired to Florida rocking chairs. But my palate wasn't the only thing to blame. They were also more wrinkled than plump, more matte than glistening, the shells half-full of liquor or empty in a way that just doesn't happen when you eat oysters near where they were raised.

Our server told us that the restaurant used to buy from local oystermen, but after the spill it switched. "Since the oil spill," she said, "I really don't know if they're safe to eat around here. I really don't know."

So the fear lingers. If you can't get a Pass Christian oyster in the restaurant next to the Pass Christian oyster festival, how reassured can anybody be?

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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