As Easter fast approaches, the availability of fresh oysters is getting harder and harder to come across with farmers from the East coast, West coast, and even Canada facing difficulty meeting the current demand. This time of year acts as a sort of transition period for farmers. Their goal is to produce enough oysters during the summer months to sustain sales through the winter months when the bays and water tend to freeze over. Because of this, many oyster producers will pull their equipment from the water before winter sets in. As we now creep out of winter and closer to the summer months, the farms are rebuilt by putting all the equipment back into the water so the juvenile oysters can continue to develop. These oysters continue their growth over the winter, but still need time before they reach market size, creating this limbo between thin supply from the previous crop, and the upcoming crop not quite ready to be harvested. We should hope to see more consistency in supply in the next few weeks as more oysters begin to hit market size, but in the meantime, supply is lacking leading up to Easter and Mother’s Day.
Additionally, the effects of the Pandemic are still being felt in terms of supply. Prior to Covid 19, inventories throughout the winter were much higher, with farmers actually increasing seed purchases year over year to keep up with the growing demand. The demand, however, plummeted once the pandemic hit, and oyster producers were left with large inventories that they had difficulty moving. Naturally, many farms reduced the number of seeds they were purchasing in response to the diminished demand, so upcoming classes of oysters since 2019 have gotten smaller. The issue is now that restaurants are open again and people feel more comfortable going out, demand is right back up. However, the supply takes time to bounce back, and the supply is still behind. Oysters take on average 3 years to fully mature and grow to legal market size, so there just are not enough seeds coming up behind the current crops to keep up, and will likely still be a year or two until we see the effects of these larger seed classes.
Up north in Canada, bays also freeze over during the winter, but this affects oyster production differently. The offshore farms are accessed via cars or trucks being able to drive over the ice to access them. This time of year, unfortunately, as the ice begins to melt it prevents the ability to drive across the ice safely to access the farms. The bays are not quite thawed enough to grant boat access either, so right now, there is a bit of a waiting game for the ice to fully thaw before Canadian producers along the east coast can resume consistent supply from their offshore farms.
As for west coast oysters, there has been a recent norovirus outbreak that has been linked back to the consumption of raw oysters out of British Columbia, Canada. Luckily for BST, we do not carry any oysters that are produced in British Colombia, so we were not affected. The California Department of Public Health has advised restaurants and retailers to check tags of all shellfish in their inventory to dispose of anything out of British Columbia in an attempt to prevent further outbreaks. This has caused California and other states who utilize BC as their main source of oysters to shop elsewhere along the west coast for their oyster supply. As a result, spikes in the demand for non-BC oysters are putting pressure on west coast producers, and further causing supply to not be able to reach the current demand. As the weather warms up over the next few weeks along the East Coast of both the US and Canada, we should see supply increase to more readily be able to fulfill demand, and as the norovirus out of British Columbia is contained and the dust settles, non-affected BC producers will start to regain the trust of customers and take pressure off of US west coast producers.