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Keeping The Oyster Boats Afloat

This story originally ran in the  March 2011  issue of Food Manufacturing . The nation’s largest shipper of Gulf Coast oysters has fallen on hard times. Still recovering from a natural disaster, operations were set back again when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April, 2010.

This story originally ran in the March 2011 issue ofFood Manufacturing.

The nation’s largest shipper of Gulf Coast oysters has fallen on hard times. Still recovering from a natural disaster, operations were set back again when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April, 2010. Through new technologies, the company hopes to win back the confidence of its customers and of American consumers.

In 1991, Johnny’s Oysters & Shrimp opened for business. Ten years later, a change in ownership prompted a name change, and Prestige Oyster was born. Since 2001, the company has been serving up fresh Gulf Coast oysters to customers around the country. Prestige Oyster, located in San Leon, Texas, is the largest reef owner in Louisiana and the country’s largest shipper of Gulf Coast oysters. Prestige oversees a fleet of its contracting corporate boats to harvest oysters from its seeded private reefs, as well as purchasing oysters from hundreds of independent fishermen that fish oysters from public waters.

In fewer than ten years, Prestige became one of the most successful seafood companies in Texas, catching and shipping up to 5,000 sacks of oysters per day, each sack containing about 300 oysters. And then, in September of 2008, disaster struck.

Bracing for landfall

Hurricane Ike struck land on September 13, 2008, the eye of the storm tearing through San Leon. The storm reportedly killed over 100 people in Texas and crippled operations at Prestige Oyster. Production halted while the company rebuilt. Much of the concrete processing area near the back of the company headquarters survived Ike relatively unharmed, but most of the company offices were completely destroyed.

“I’m still trying to find paperwork that got whipped around in the hurricane,” says Lisa Halili, Prestige Oyster’s Vice President.

Further distressing to Halili was that weeks prior to the natural disaster, Prestige Oyster had signed a $2 million contract with Avure Technologies for a new high pressure processing (HPP) machine. The HPP equipment functions by sending loose oysters through a tunnel in which the oysters are pressurized to 40,000 psi, opening the oysters and slowing bacteria growth. This process better ensures the safety of the oysters and helps to increase shelf life.

Unfortunately, due to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Ike, Prestige would not have been able to harvest any oysters to send through the HPP tunnel.

“We bought [the HPP system] in August 2008, just a few days before Hurricane Ike,” says Halili, “and then we were just wiped out. So Avure let us out of a $2 million contract. I mean, people don’t just do that — but they did. So when we got back and stabilized in December 2009, we bought it again and re-signed a new contract.”

The next thing coming around the bend

In late 2009 and early 2010, Prestige Oyster started putting the pieces back together and began to thrive while planning for the delivery and installation of its new equipment.

“In the first quarter of 2010, we sold 139,000 sacks more than we did in 2009,” says Halili, “So, like they say in Vegas, we thought, ‘We’re on a roll.’ We were doing great.”

After becoming HACCP-certified, Halili planned to roll out her certification and the HPP equipment at a public event in the Spring of 2010.

Prestige Oyster's High Pressure Processing (HPP) system was completely installed and validated on June 15, 2010.

The company’s new HPP investment was delivered to its facility in mid-April 2010 — a week after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing eleven workers and flooding the Gulf with oil, in what would turn out to be the largest offshore oil spill in the nation’s history.

“I saw it on TV. Our biggest concern was those eleven people [who were killed in the explosion]. No one was thinking about oil or the water or oysters,” says Halili, “Everybody was so focused on those eleven people — Were they alive? What happened to them? That’s what everybody was thinking. When something like that happens, it’s just a world of tragedy. If I lose everything I own, I’ve lost nothing compared to them.”

But as news continued to pour in and the event stretched on for days and weeks, the impact that this spill would have on the regional seafood business began to sink in. The FDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) soon put large swaths of the Gulf Coast fisheries on lock-down, denying access to reefs, both public and private.

Halili says, “When we were [HACCP-] certified for HPP, and we passed our tests, we were supposed to have this big promotion. I was going to have the Houston Chronicle and Jerry Patterson, our land officer, and a few representatives to come eat these high-pressure treated oysters. Instead, we sat here with a machine and no oysters.”

Instead, Halili and other Prestige-contracted employees became certified yet again, this time as what she calls “certified seafood sniffers,” trained to detect the presence of petroleum in seafood caught in the Gulf.

“The FDA did a series of ‘sniff and smell’ tests, and if there’s oil there, you’re going to know it. Petroleum is so strong that you can’t miss it,” she says.

When not sniffing oysters, contracted employees at Prestige spent hours pouring over documents in order to submit the necessary paperwork to file claims with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, the organization now overseeing individual and business claims against BP.

“We didn’t file [our claims] right away,” admits Halili, “because the documents that they were requesting took us forever to compile. We sent in 12,000 pages, 322 pounds [of paper].”

But for fishermen who work with Prestige and others who were missing crucial data after the spill, Prestige was able to respond quickly, sending sales records, payment information and other business figures to those who requested it, usually within hours.

“God bless the FDA for passing a lot of those HACCP rules, because in a situation like this, it makes it really easy [to compile information],” she says.

The ‘poor oyster’ struggles to fight back

Gulf fisheries are now open, but the oyster population is still in jeopardy. In an effort to flush the oil out of the Gulf and into the ocean, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal ordered that valves controlling the flow of freshwater from the Mississippi River be open, allowing the water to flow freely into the Gulf. While having little appreciable effect on the oil, the move dramatically shifted salinity levels in the Gulf, killing off oysters — which thrive only in saltwater environments — en mass.

“We’re still crippled from Hurricane Ike, and now we’re here all day long and can’t catch twenty sacks,” says Halili.

On top of the low harvest levels, Prestige is dealing with a potentially bigger problem: lack of customer confidence. Many consumers are still skeptical about the safety of oysters from the Gulf Coast, and many of Prestige’s clients either share this concern or are uninterested in dealing with the hassle of defending the oysters’ safety to their own customers.

Halili says, “Oysters are an exotic food. If a restaurant doesn’t have oysters, they’re going to offer you something else. No one’s going to argue if they’re given two extra shrimp or a crab roll instead of oysters.”

Orders, once rushing in, have slowed to a drip. And Prestige Oyster is facing its worst year yet.

“The poor oyster is really going to have to fight back to regain its reputation,” admits Halili.

Ruzhdi Halili operates the touch-screen control panel that runs the company's High Pressure Processing (HPP) equipment.

Staging a comeback

Though times are tough, Prestige Oyster is keeping its chin up, exploring options beyond its bread and butter to keep business afloat.

The greater capacity of the company’s new HPP machine allows more diverse processing options. Ruzhdi Halili, Lisa’s son and employee at Prestige, says of the equipment, “We had a smaller machine that did the same thing as this one from Avure. This is the newest and latest one from them.”

Prestige Oyster is hoping that “the newest and latest” will allow the company to process other foods or to co-pack for established processors while it waits for the oyster to regain its popularity.

In addition to the HPP equipment, Prestige Oyster recently acquired an Instantly Quick Frozen (IQF) Freezer. The equipment will help the facility expand its line beyond the raw oysters the company now ships to other varieties of oyster and seafood products.

Lisa Halili admits that most Gulf Coast oyster processors are too small to engage in much PR and are too geographically diverse and individualistic to band together to form a powerful lobbying group or trade organization. Instead, she hopes that some local celebrities will come to the defense of the region’s local fare.

“All it takes is a recognizable face,” she says, “If someone people trust tells them that oysters are safe to eat, maybe they’ll believe them.”

But Lisa and the rest of the employees at Prestige Oysters have faith that oysters will come out on top.

She says, “It’s kind of like a grape vineyard. The whole thing catches on fire and everything is destroyed. If you dig down and find one root that’s still alive, the vineyard will grow again. Oysters are the same way.”