Gulf's seafood producers contemplate shortages

McClatchy NewspapersMay 3, 2010 

As catastrophic as the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill appears, it's still too early to calculate the potential effect it will have on seafood supplies and prices.

With fishing closed for at least 10 days from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle in response to a gusher of oil pouring out of a BP oil rig, seafood producers and restaurant owners nationwide are worried about shortages.

Fishermen in the potential path of the oil are preparing for the worst.

The uncertainty is understandable, said Lance Robinson, a coastal fisheries director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

"It could be devastating. If the oil spill continues, the impact could be huge, but it's still early," he said. "Right now, it's the unknown that has got people antsy."

Supply concerns are already being felt by seafood distributors across the Gulf Coast, even though 75 percent of Louisiana's coastline is not affected by the 10-day closure.

"That's going to happen if you take 25 percent out of the market,"' said Mike Voisin, a Houma, La., seafood dealer and the chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force.

He thinks any heightened demand could be short-lived.

"If we can get the source of the oil under control, we should see things get back to normal in three weeks to three months," Voisin said.

"The real challenge is getting the source of the oil stopped. We hope the publicity won't taint our brand."

Voisin estimates the oyster industry has a $500 million-a-year economic impact along the Gulf Coast, with two-thirds of that in Louisiana.

Florida fishermen also are watching the spill's movement.

"We could lose several classes of fish," said Glenn Brooks, president of the 500-member Gulf Fishermen's Association in Bradenton, Fla. "We are definitely concerned. Our main objective is to keep it out of the bays and estuaries. It could potentially wipe out our fisheries."

Shrimper Mike Fannon is worried about the possibility of an oil slick reaching the grass flats where he shrimps each night near Anna Maria Island, at the entrance to Florida's Tampa Bay.

"An oil slick could be devastating, and it won't just be shrimp," he said "It will get everything."

An environmental disaster would be another hit for Texas oystermen such as Clifford Hillman, the president of Hillman Shrimp and Oysters in Dickinson on Galveston Bay.

The bay, which produces 80 percent of the oysters in the state, hasn't recovered from Hurricane Ike in 2008.

The storm's surge buried oyster beds in silt, reducing the harvest by 70 percent, Hillman said. He's had to shift his boats to the south.

"We were able to keep our heads above water this year," he said.

The Texas oyster season ended April 30, so Hillman is now dependent on Louisiana waters for his supply.

Restaurateurs had mixed views Monday about the possible impact of the spill.

Shannon Wynne, the owner of The Flying Fish in Fort Worth, expects Gulf oysters to be "nonexistent."

"We'll switch to coldwater oysters from he Northeast and Northwest, which will be four times more expensive," he said.

Shrimp will be more readily available, he said. "There are three or four months of supply in the pipeline. The prices will go up, but it will be available," he said.

Christi Haas, the manager of JJ's Oyster Bar in Fort Worth, is more optimistic.

"We've experienced shortages before, such as during the hurricanes, and we have always been able to get quality products. And we know that will continue," she said.

However, the oil poses a great unknown, Robinson said.

How long will it take for the source to be shut off? What path will the spill take?

"There's a potential for catastrophe," Robinson said. "Louisiana produces more oysters than any state and it has a tremendous shrimp fishery."

(Campbell, of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, reported from Fort Worth, Texas. Jennifer Rich and Vin Mannix of the Bradenton Herald contributed to this article from Bradenton, Fla.)

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