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Gulf oil spill: At oyster festival, shucking like never before

June 5, 2010 |  4:44 pm

Rio Price stared solemnly at the pile of oysters in front of him. His knife was ready, his jaw was clenched. The pressure was on. Could Price, the defending oyster-shucking champion of New Orleans, repeat his feat and win this year's contest before a cheering crowd of hundreds?

Well, no. Price came in second during Saturday's race. But in light of the oil threatening Louisiana's seafood industry and the malaise settling over fish-catchers, fish-sellers and fish-eaters across the gulf, just showing up made him and his 13 competitors something akin to heroes as the city held its first festival dedicated solely to oysters beneath the blazing sun in the French Quarter.

In addition to the shucking event, which Ricky Lee won by shucking 17 oysters in two minutes (each with expertly cut muscles to ensure they did not stick to the shell when it came time to eat), there was a biggest-oyster contest; a tent featuring something that passed as an oyster museum; a stall where children could paint whimsical designs on oyster shells; and stands selling baked oysters, grilled oysters, fried oysters and, of course, raw oysters.

About the only place not selling oyster items was the snowcone stand. Still, it did a roaring business as the temperature topped 90 with humidity to match.

New Orleans has had oyster-shucking contests before and seafood festivals, but never one only for oysters, said Sal Sunseri, who came up with the idea. Sunseri, vice president of the P&J Oyster Co., in operation since 1876, said he hoped to prove to the world that despite the oil gushing into the gulf, oysters are safe to eat. Sunseri actually began planning the festival several years ago. "Little did we know the importance of this festival as it starts today," he said.

His first attempt to hold the festival was planned for June 2006, but the city was struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina, so it was delayed. He never considered canceling it because of the oil spill. If anything, he was "more determined than ever" to make it happen, said Sunseri.

As he spoke, Price, Lee and the other shucking competitors were accepting congratulations and showing off their trophies: wooden plaques with ceramic oyster shells attached to them. Neither Lee nor Sunseri would admit to being fearful for their futures. "I have faith in God," Lee said when asked whether he thought he would be shucking oysters for years to come, given the amount of oil tainting the gulf.

Sunseri noted that most of the gulf remains open to fishing and that the industry "hasn't skipped a beat" despite the spill. "I'm still thoroughly optimistic," he said. "What we're doing here today means more than ever."

Chris Berg of the New Orleans Fish House, another major oyster producer, didn't share their rosy view. Between the erosion of barrier islands over the years, which has affected oyster farmers, and now the oil, he said the future was shaky. "It has been a compounding of things down here for years, and this oil is going to blow the lid off this coast," said Berg.

He noted that the second-place winner in the biggest-oyster contest, Wilbert Collins, used to be one of 17 oyster farmers in Lafourche Parish, La. Now, he is the only one there, a result of the loss of barrier islands altering the water content and affecting the ability of oystermen to successfully farm.

But for Saturday, at least, Collins didn't seem worried as he posed alongside the first-place winner, Dan Coulon, showing off oysters that looked more like large rocks as they nested inside their rough-edged shells.

The festival ends Sunday and will feature an oyster-eating contest as one of its final events.

-- Tina Susman, reporting from New Orleans

Photo: Oystermen Wilbert Collins, left, and Dan Coulon show off their huge oysters at New Orleans' first oyster festival. Collins took second place to Coulon's winning entry. Credit: Tina Susman / Los Angeles Times