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Saturday, October 8, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Local oyster growers get boost from Katrina

Bloomberg News

Taylor Shellfish is aiming to achieve something of a milestone: making money selling shucked oysters for the first time in almost four years. And the Shelton, Mason County, company has Hurricane Katrina to thank for it.

With two-thirds of Louisiana oyster beds wiped out by the Aug. 29 storm, prices of Pacific oysters have soared as Gulf Coast processors scour for alternatives thousands of miles away. That's allowed Taylor Shellfish to raise its prices 38 percent in the past month to $40 per gallon of oysters.

"It's the strongest demand that I've ever seen for oysters," says William Taylor, a fourth-generation oysterman who helps run the 115-year-old family business. "It's beyond what we are going to be able to produce or what the industry in the Northwest is going to be able to produce."

That's a problem many Washington state oystermen can live with.

The sudden supply disruption in Louisiana has made Washington the top U.S. oyster producer and may help bail out the state's growers, who have been facing rising fuel costs and falling demand for shucked oysters.

Since 1999, the value of Washington production has stayed at about $22 million even as the annual harvest grew 13 percent to a peak of 9.9 million pounds in 2002, according to the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Prices have surged as much as 50 percent since the hurricane, according to the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association, giving the Northwest growers some relief, even as they sympathize with the hurricane victims 2,000 miles away.

"We definitely are making more on our oysters, but we are feeling a bit guilty about it, too," says Robin Downey, executive director of the Olympia-based group that represents farmers from Alaska to California and Hawaii.

Coast Seafoods, which claims to own the world's largest oyster hatchery in Quilcene, Jefferson County, has raised prices by 10 percent. The hatchery is capable of producing more than 30 billion oyster larvae a year.

Gulf Coast customers "have doubled their orders," says Tim Morris, a Coast Seafoods operation manager. "It's definitely a shot in the arm for the industry. Prices have been real stagnant in the last five to six years."

The Bellevue company, which owns and operates more than 15,000 acres of Pacific Coast tidelands as growing beds, is harvesting its Pacific oysters a month earlier than normal. It's also adding a day of production at its shucking plant in South Bend, Pacific County, to five days. The plant will hire 50 more people next month to boost its staff to 225 for the peak harvest season.

Coast Seafoods, with $15 million in gross sales, shucks 90 percent of its oysters, with the remaining sold in-shell. Production costs have increased by as much as 20 percent amid a 50 percent jump in fuel costs, Morris says.

The supply disruption is not so much a boon, says Morris, a third-generation oysterman. "It's just helping to offset the increased production cost."

Taylor Shellfish started 15 years ago paring its shucked-meat production and moving into in-shell oysters as the popularity of oyster bars grew. Shucked meat now accounts for 7.5 percent of the company's sales while in-shell oysters have risen to 30 percent.

"For the last five years or so, the industry has really suffered with low prices and slow demand for shucked meat," Taylor says. "Folks that used to eat oysters were literally the older generation and they were dying out, unfortunately. We were losing money on every oyster we shucked."

While growers are rejoicing, oyster bars are feeling the pinch.

The $4.99 "happy hour" special for six half-shell oysters may soon be a thing of the past at Seattle's Brooklyn Seafood, Steak & Oyster House. The restaurant, with its copper-topped oyster bar, attracts tourists and locals who grab a bite before symphony concerts at Benaroya Hall just across the street.

"I just got to cross my fingers for the next two years while they plant seedlings and rebuild the port and just take the hit," says Blair King, Brooklyn Seafood's executive chef. "I can't do anything because oysters are in our name."

At Elliott's Oyster House on Pier 56 in downtown Seattle, General Manager Gregory Hinton has watched the average wholesale price of Pacific oysters climb 10 percent to $6.60 a dozen since the hurricane.

"It's good for the producers but tough for the local restaurants," Hinton says. "We are seeing fuel surcharges put onto some of our deliveries. We want to hold prices for as long as we can.

"But if we were to see a 25 percent increase in the price, then we will have to raise prices."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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