As an oyster company, it's sad when we don't have oysters to sell. We don't like telling customers, "No, not today," or "I can only offer you one bag," but the reality is, this year's winter and spring East Coast oyster shortage has been more prevalent than years past. Everyone along the supply chain is feeling it -- the growers know it, we know it, our customers know it, and everyone is asking why. So what is causing the market's East Coast oyster shortage? What is different this year than years before?
Every year, oyster supply tightens during mid-winter through early summer. When the waters get colder, the oysters slow their metabolism significantly because there is no food. Algae is least abundant in winter because cold water temperatures inhibit their reproduction and growth. Without food in the water, the oysters survive on their fat reserves to get through the winter.
“Weather-related issues directly affect the oyster supply.”
This year, weather played a huge role as the lead antagonist. The East Coast was barraged with snow, cold winds, rain, and even set some record lows in March, only a month away from spring! Weather-related issues directly affect the oyster supply. If there is ice, it can be difficult or dangerous to harvest (see our article on ice fishing); if there is strong wind, it is unsafe for fishermen to get out on the water; and if there is heavy rain, areas are subject to rain closures prohibiting harvests, which may last as long as 3-5 days.
Cold water temperature is also an accomplice in this oyster melodrama. Algae thrives in warmer waters, and the late spring we are experiencing is delaying algae blooms that nourish the oysters to grow. In New England, this affects many farms because typically, growers decide to sell all their market ready product in the winter before the next batch of oysters reach market size. Low inventories in the spring lower labor costs and ensures a better yield by avoiding possible mortality on the farm. Since waters are not warming, growers are now out of last season's inventory and waiting on this season's oysters to grow.
Weather issues, however, is not new news. Yes, weather this year has been really bad (it's hard to ignore climate change), but we as an industry have been able to manage through tough weather in years past without setting off alarm bells across the market. What is different this year is added regional and market conditions that are also applying pressure to the market like a domino effect, further compounding the oyster shortage.
Just 4 years ago, the Gulf led the country in the production of oysters, accounting for 59% of the national total according to the EPA. Then, in the same year, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened and has been wreaking havoc on the oyster population since. Contrary to popular belief and media coverage of animals covered in oil, the oysters in the area are not dying because they are smothered in black residue. After the spill, floodgates in Louisiana were opened to prevent the oil from contaminating the estuaries and marshes. This was effective in keeping the oil at bay, but a ton of fresh water was released into the Gulf, affecting the salinity levels of the water. This fresh water is problematic, and it's causing oyster deaths and preventing recovery.
“Ken Brown, a Louisiana State University biologist, said he and his colleagues haven’t seen any major effects from the oil on adult oyster mortality rates, but when fresh water dilutes salinity levels ‘below 10 parts per thousand, and especially if you get below 5 parts per thousand, then oysters have problems.’”
— Nola.com, "Louisiana Seafood: In wake of BP spill and river diversions, oysters show strain"
In other parts of the Gulf, like Texas, public oyster season ended April 30th, and supply will be limited to private leases with historically low levels of production. An algae bloom found to cause toxins in shellfish forced area closures in March, and the three-year long drought is adding too little fresh water to dilute the high-salinity waters of the Gulf.
So, the Gulf is out of oysters. Where does everyone turn to?
The north, of course! Colder waters mean less year-round closures; oyster farms are popping up left and right. The oysters may be slightly more premium, but hey, they're oysters, and they taste great!
Just like that, demand spiked overnight for oysters from the Chesapeake. This put pressure on the Mid-Atlantic oyster supply that caused more supply shortages. The oyster population in the Chesapeake is definitely recovering from implementing harvest regulations and numerous efforts to improve water quality, but like the Gulf, public oyster beds also closed March 30th in Maryland and April 30th in Virginia. The harsh winter and strong spring winds have limited Mid-Atlantic supply, and now, oyster production will need to rely on private leases.
Blue Point Oysters are a staple at Pangea Shellfish. Last fall, we saw an average of 30,000 Blue Point Oysters leave our shop each week. Since the oyster shortages in the south, we now sell an average of 80,000 Blue Points per week! The supply we're getting isn't even close to covering all our demand, but given the weather conditions and all the factors explained above, it's hard to come up with more oysters.
Prices are also at a record high. We have never charged as much as we have on Blue Points. A shake-up of a major producer in Connecticut caused prices to rise by putting more pressure on other producers in the state. We hate accepting price increases, too, but sometimes it's the difference between having product for our customers or no product at all.
“Supply will steadily increase from now until fall... we will see the market flooded with market size oysters come September.”
In our thirteen years of operation, this year was the first time we had a week without any Canadian oysters. Our inventory looked like shit. But the good news is, the Canadian oysters are now back, and it's a reminder that production will continue to improve as temperatures get warmer and spring growth happens. Supply will steadily increase from now until the fall, and because of the late spring, we will see the market flooded with market size oysters come September.
Demand is also at an all-time high as the oyster is experiencing a renaissance. We will continue to see demand pressures on supply during these mid-winter and spring months, but outside of these months, growing demand is great news for our industry. We appreciate your patience and understanding as we get through these tight months. And we promise you, oysters are coming. Yes, they are.
Special thanks to John Brock from Pappas Restaurants and Mike McGee from Chincoteague Shellfish for contributing to the research of this piece.