Oyster harvesting is one of the oldest components of the Louisiana fishing industry and was the largest part of it until 1925. One indicator of its historic importance is the fact that the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries was first established in 1872 as the Oyster Fishing Regulatory Board.
The oyster species crassostrea virginica is found all along the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. But the oysters found in the Gulf tend to grow plumper than northern virginicas.Connoisseurs also claim the oysters harvested here have a special flavor that just isn't found in oysters from any other place. That's something that apparently has been known for more than a century. It's the reason that the Abbeville Meridional and Cameron Parish Pilot had cause to complain in February 1900 about "pirates" coming from other places to harvest oysters that should be saved for local folk.
"Vermilion Bay and the coast are the location of many fine oyster reefs," the Meridional reported in February 1900. "They properly belong to our people, but are now the prey of a lot of oyster pirates from God knows where."
The Pilot said the appeal of Calcasieu oysters brought "wandering, wifeless, childless usurpers" to Big Lake and coastal waters, that the pirates kept growing in number, and they threatened to destroy the business for everyone.
"Where these luggers came from, others are. Each of these fellows have forty relations and the last jack of them tongs oysters," the newspaper claimed. "You tongmen who last week were praying for a cannery will, in three years, be praying for oysters.
"If the reefs are to be looted by wandering lugger-men the resident tongmen may as well begin looking for cotton ranches. These fellows who are here today and there tomorrow will scrape the river bottom clean. They will lather and shave the reefs until there is no longer stubble left. Add to this a cannery and the goose stops laying."
Apparently outside oystermen are a problem that remains with us today. Just recently The Times-Picayune reported complaints by Louisiana oystermen that Texas oyster boats are overfishing Louisiana's public oyster reefs that they say should belong to those with Louisiana licenses. To rub hot sauce in the wound, Texas bars Louisiana fishermen from its waters though a 2005 ban on the sale of new oyster licenses.
Adding shell to the pile, Louisiana fishermen say Texas oystermen overstuff sacks unloaded at Gulf docks. A sack of oysters used to weigh about a hundred pounds. But Texans have begun using bigger sacks that hold 125 to 130 pounds. Oysters are sold by the sack and Louisiana fishermen say the overstuffed sacks are killing their market.
Actual damage done to the Louisiana oyster industry by hurricanes and publicity from the BP oil spill have added urgency to the fight for oysters that can be harvested, and there will probably be oyster wars of one sort or another as long as there are restaurants to serve them chilled on the half shell, accompanied by a concocted sauce with plenty of heat to it, and a cold beer to wash it down.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.