Rains bring shortage of oysters in California
“You can say we’re the only farmers who don’t like rain,” said Neal Maloney, owner of the Morro Bay Oyster Co., a Central California harvester that produces about 1 million Pacific Gold oysters a year.
Since late last year, when the first of a series of storms hit California, Maloney and many of the state’s other oyster farmers have been unable to harvest the shellfish, temporarily shut down some operations and removed California oysters from some menus.
Although the storms brought much-needed rain to the state, helping to refill reservoirs and drenching drought-stricken regions, water runoff in places like Morro and Tomales bays caused oyster collectors to suspend operations for bacterial tests.
“Here in Tomales Bay, most of the year the water quality is some of the best in the lower 48 states,” said John Finger, co-founder and CEO of Hog Island Oyster Co. Hog Island is one of the largest collectors of largest oysters in the state. producing about 6 million shellfish a year, 3 million of which are produced at its Tomales Bay facility.
Due to runoff from agricultural fields and homes, “the fecal coliform bacteria count goes up,” Finger said. The bacteria levels may not make people sick, she said, but they are “an indicator that there might be some problems in the water.”
Depending on how much water levels rise or how much rain falls, the state health department requires farmers to wait a certain number of days and retest for bacteria levels before they can resume harvesting. The waiting period allows the oysters to also remove the contaminants.
When rain causes Chorro Creek, which flows into Morro Bay, to rise a foot, Maloney is unable to harvest for several days.
During the most recent series of storms, the creek rose 20 feet.
“Since the storm started, I haven’t been able to harvest for about two weeks,” Maloney told The Times on Thursday. “On Friday, I have to test the water to see if it is clean enough and if it is, I will get the result on Monday.
“So the earliest I could harvest is Monday,” he said, “unless there is more rain.”
If the rain again raises the creek a foot, the clock will reset and Maloney will not be able to harvest for several more days.
“We are currently in shortage,” he said.
For Maloney, the harvest disruption has set his supply chain back by about a month.
In addition to the strike, the Morro Bay Oyster Co. is still recovering from the effects of the pandemic, which closed the restaurants that bought the oysters.
“We went to zero cash flow for almost a year,” Maloney said. The business was boosted by loans from the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program and some money from the US Department of Agriculture.
“It’s like a three-year recovery,” he said. “We already had limited capacity, so taking any kind of hit right now is not a good time.”
The shortage has had an impact on restaurants and vendors, particularly for specialty operations like the Ventura Fish Market, which operates only on Saturdays and offers produce with the promise that it will be “24 to 48 hours out of water or still alive.” .
“In the last few weeks, we haven’t had any sales” for customers, owner Kat Jones said. “There is no local fish. There are no paychecks for anyone in the industry.”
For those who have their freezers full, he added, no problem.
Restaurants like L & E Oyster Bar in Silver Lake can get by without their offerings of California farmed and harvested oysters by relying on other suppliers.
For now, L&E’s oysters come from British Columbia, Canada and Baja California, with some from the East Coast, co-owner Tyler Bell said.
California oyster supplies can be unpredictable as the harvest is halted by even small amounts of rain, Bell said.
In some oyster regions, harvesting can stop with as little as 0.4 inches of rain, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Hog Island, which also operates its own restaurants, currently “buys everything” from other vendors and is not offering its own oysters due to the rains. The last time he was able to offer his own oysters on the menu was in early January.
“There’s a lot more cash flow at a time when it’s already slower,” Finger said.
Grassy Bar Oyster Co., in Morro Bay, also operates its own store. But unlike Hog Island, it hasn’t been able to open because it only serves its own harvested oysters.
“We have one [financial] mattress that we are going to burn quickly,” said Grassy Bar president George Trevelyan, adding that he has had to cut staff hours.
But beyond the financial impacts that worry oyster collectors is the likelihood that bigger and heavier deluges will be the norm in California due to climate change.
“This is one of the things that we were pretty sure would happen: more intense storms,” Finger said. “And you know that what worries you is not only the amount of fresh water [in the bay] but sedimentation.
“The long-term health of the bay is affected if the creeks overflow their banks and more mud falls,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to have to get used to.”