NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The pre-dawn shucking of small mountains of oysters that is an age-old workaday ritual in New Orleans is coming to an end at the 134-year-old P&J Oyster Co., because of the oil spilling ominously offshore.
Barring an unforeseen reopening of the oyster beds that supply P&J, Thursday was to be the final day of shucking at the family owned business in the city's French Quarter.
"I'm going to try and buy a few shucked oysters from some people in Alabama that are still processing oysters and once they stop, I'm done," said Al Sunseri, who along with his brother Sal has run the business that opened in 1876.
Sunseri isn't sure what will happen to P&J and its employees in the long haul. Other Louisiana oyster companies say their oyster supplies are also dwindling, prices are rising and the future of their business remains stark and uncertain.
"The same thing happening over at P&J is happening over here also," said John Tesvich, owner of Ameripure Oyster Co. in Franklin, La. His company sells pasteurized oysters to restaurants around the country.
Tesvich said Ameripure may be able to hold on a little longer because it cultivates and harvests its own oysters, supplemented by suppliers. "But they're on the point of depletion now," said Tesvich, adding he's hoping for "a few more good weeks."
Oyster growers and harvesters are facing a double threat.
On the one hand, oil gushing from the blown-out well off Louisiana could contaminate the beds, killing the oysters or rendering them unsafe to eat. On the other hand, a method of fighting the encroaching oil by opening inland water diversion gates in hopes of pushing the oil back also could kill oysters. The fresh inland water dilutes saltier waters oysters need to thrive.
Complicating the problem is the fact that it's spawning season for young oysters that usually take 18 to 24 months to grow to market size.
Third-generation oyster farmer Wilbert Collins, 73, said it could take three years to replenish the stock on some of his leases where fresh water is encroaching.
Collins said he owns three boats. Two are idle, one is doing oil cleanup work. He's not sure what the future holds for his business -- or for his sons and grandson who work with him.
John Rotonti, owner of Felix's Oyster Bar and Restaurant, said recently he has yet to run out of oysters for the raw bar at his eatery just off Bourbon Street in the French Quarter tourist district. Still, he's having to absorb price hikes and uncertain supplies.
At some point, he said, he'll have to close the raw bar that is the trademark of his business and probably lay off a half-dozen shuckers.
Tesvich, Sunseri and Kevin Voisin -- an executive with family owned Houma oyster processor Motivatit Seafood -- all say they worry not just for themselves but for their workers. Some of their employees have been with the companies for years.
"There's 200 families that eat because Motovatit Seafood exists," Voisin said.
Nowadays, the owners of the companies said, they are at varying stages of filing claims for aid from the oil giant BP that has spent weeks trying to stop the oil spewing into the Gulf.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.