This week, the US Department of Justice announced that it had reached the largest civil settlement ever with a single entity in this nation's history. BP, the oil conglomerate, has agreed to pay $20.8 billion for its role in the horrifying Gulf of Mexico oil spill that took place in 2010.
But one of the things that we now know from the settlement is this: the Gulf of Mexico oyster industry is—and likely will be—fucked for many years to come.
In the Fact Sheet that accompanied the proposed settlement, the DOJ catalogued the horrors that resulted from the spill. These included 11 deaths, 80,000 birds killed, 35,000 sea turtles injured, and a parade of other environmental nightmares. But among the more significant tragedies of the oil spill is what it did—and will continue to do—to oysters in the region.
We now know that we may have lost up to 508 million pounds of oyster meat thanks to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon.
When that BP-owned oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago, fishermen—especially those in Louisiana, which was particularly rocked by the spill—looked on in despair. But oyster lovers knew it was a particularly dreadful day for oysters. As Frank Brigtsen, an award-winning New Orleans chef and Paul Prudhomme mentee, told the Times-Picayune, "The whole time I was watching that stupid spill cam with dispersant being injected into the spill, I thought oysters, oysters, oysters."
Chef Brigtsen was right to worry. The spill, which took 87 days to stop, destroyed up to 8 billion oysters, the DOJ now says. This destruction took place either by death or by making the oysters unable to reproduce—a problem that will continue into the future. The DOJ says somewhere between 240 and 508 million pounds of oyster meat have been lost to us.
No surprise, therefore, that oyster prices are high and that jobs in many local restaurants have disappeared.
Here's the thing: the oyster population that survived is not what it was. Growth problems remain and the health of the survivors is in question. Although inspectors declared that Gulf oysters were edible as soon as eight months after the spill was contained, the supply of oysters hasn't bounced back to nearly what it was.
Ray Grizzle of the University of New Hampshire told Quartz that "sublethal physiological effects" on oyster respiration and gonads are to be expected from contact with petroleum compounds. Reproduction by these oysters is in serious question.
Last month, a new oyster hatchery opened in Grand Isle, Louisiana. It was built with $3 million dollars of early settlement money from BP. "This oyster hatchery is a very important tool in rehabilitating the state's valuable oyster resources in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill," Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
But the fact remains that the oyster industry has a lot to rebound from. We know this for sure now, thanks to the evidence released along with this week's settlement.