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Gulf spill drives up seafood prices in Md.

Timothy B. Wheeler
The Baltimore Sun
Saturday, May 29, 2010; 1:06 PM

The huge oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is beginning to be felt in Maryland, as the state's seafood businesses say fisheries' shutdowns in Louisiana waters have pinched off a major source of oysters and domestic shrimp, driving up prices in the process.

Gulf crabs, which grace many a late-spring feast in Maryland, are still available, say wholesalers and restaurateurs. But don't expect any price breaks at the crab house or market, because the predicted boom in Chesapeake Bay crustaceans hasn't shown up yet in local waters.

"Memorial Day weekend, there's going to be shortages, and the prices are going to be outrageous, but that's normal," Bill Sieling of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association said about crabs. As a result of the Gulf fisheries disruption, he noted, "it will be greater than it usually is."

The Gulf supplied one-eighth of all fish and shellfish caught in the United States in 2008, and Louisiana is the nation's leading supplier of domestic shellfish. With more than a fifth of the Gulf closed to fishing now as a precaution against the ruptured well off Louisiana's coast, those fisheries have been devastated. The impact is starting to ripple across the country, and it's affecting Maryland businesses that rely on the region to meet their customers' insatiable demand for fresh and frozen seafood when local fisheries aren't in season or ample enough.

Workers at W.H. Harris Seafood in Grasonville, the only year-round oyster-processing plant left in the state, have been shucking this week what might be the last Louisiana bivalves they can expect for the time being, said Jason Ruth, co-owner.

The firm normally buys 1,500 bushels of oysters from Louisiana weekly through spring and summer, when Maryland's oyster season is closed. But the tractor-trailer that arrived from Port Sulphur on Tuesday likely is the last for the time being, said Ruth. After those shellfish are shucked and canned, he said, he'll probably be forced to send home 15 seasonal workers he has from Mexico and El Salvador ¿ a month earlier than planned.

"We've been doing business as usual for the last couple weeks," Ruth said. "But I believe the end is near, as far as business as we know it."

Next door in Kent Narrows, at United Shellfish Co., general manager Keith Parkerson said that getting fresh Gulf shrimp the past three or four weeks has been "quite a challenge." Although Louisiana shrimpers have not been completely shut down, he said, many of them apparently have been hired for now by British Petroleum to help contain and clean up the spreading slick. As a result, he said, prices for Gulf shrimp have jumped 30 percent to 35 percent.

Seafood businesses in the Baltimore area are likewise having to scramble and pay more to get what's still available. At the Wholesale Seafood Market in Jessup, Nick Sambuco, sales manager for E. Goodwin & Sons, said the supply of fresh Gulf shrimp has dwindled to a trickle in recent weeks.

"Everyone we call with our orders, the shrimpers are not giving us quantities," Sambuco said. In one case, he got 200 pounds instead of the 5,000 he asked for. Some shrimpers are not even taking his calls, he added.

There still are plenty of shrimp available, buyers note, because imports from Latin America and Asia dominate the market, supplying 90 percent or more of what Americans eat. But the Gulf supplies about two-thirds of the shrimp caught in the United States, and the tightening of that niche market is being felt across the board.

"The wholesale price has just gone through the roof," said Tim Sughrue, an owner and vice president of Congressional Seafood, another of the wholesalers at Jessup.

A good part of the reason for the price spike is psychological, as eateries and markets anxious about the future availability of shrimp have attempted to buy up and freeze as much as they can.

"You've got customers calling to say, 'I want to get 1,000 pounds,' " said Sambuco, when they normally buy 100 pounds a week.

The oil spill hit just as shrimping season was starting in the Gulf. The closures there haven't affected supplies in the market that much so far because most wholesalers had stockpiles of shrimp frozen from last year. But they haven't been able to augment or replenish those dwindling inventories, adding to the anxiety.

"It couldn't happen at a worse time," Sambuco said.

If the oil doesn't spread farther west, the Gulf shrimp supply could pick up in mid-July when the season opens for catching them off the Texas coast.

The Gulf also supplies live crabs to Baltimore area restaurants, as well as some crab meat.

At Obrycki's Crab House and Restaurant, Cindy Bacon, whose family owns the historic Fells Point establishment, said they'ree still bringing in crabs, though no longer from Louisiana. Even before the spill, the crab catch from there had been depressed by an unusually cold winter and early spring. The restaurant has found other sources, she said, but in the meantime has compensated for the supply disruptions by adding Alaskan king and other crabs to the menu.

Mark Musterman, a Stevensville crab buyer who supplies Obrycki's, said he's been able to corral crabs from Texas to mitigate the drop in Louisiana supply. Prices for wholesalers, though, have gone up by $20 to $30 a bushel, he said.

Bacon said the restaurant has kept its prices constant, in hopes that costs for crabs will come down as more become available in the Carolinas and up the coast.

At Gunnings Seafood Restaurant in Hanover, manager Cheryl Mullen said she's had no trouble getting enough crabs from Texas and closer to home in Maryland. But the prices for them, for shrimp and for picked crab meat all have increased. Crab meat in particular seems to have soared, she said ¿ a 50 percent increase since last year. "That gets you scared," she said.

And in Annapolis, at Cantler's Riverside Inn, owner-general manager Dan Donnelly reports that he's still getting plenty of crabs from Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain, which hasn't been affected by the leaking oil.

"Prices are still high for this time of year," he said, but he hopes that will ease as more local crabs become available.

Shrimp are another story. "I wanted to buy, but they're not there," he said.

Should the oil leak persist and contaminate wide swaths of the Gulf, the outlook could worsen considerably, all caution.

"Until they cap that well, no good is going to come out of anything," said Casey Todd, manager of Metompkin Bay Oyster Co. in Crisfield. Chesapeake crabs are abundant in the lower bay now, and though his supply of Gulf oysters has been pinched, he doesn't miss them that much because Marylanders usually eat them only in "r" months. But come fall or winter, if the fishery closures continue, the impact will be greater.

If oil gets into the Louisiana oyster beds and they remain closed, that also could have a long-term impact on Maryland's plans to rebuild the Chesapeake's disease-depleted stock of the same shellfish. Oyster processors like Harris sell their discarded shells to the state for use in the University of Maryland's oyster hatchery at Horn Point. The shells provide the best hard surface for free-floating baby oysters to "set" or anchor themselves.

The hatchery is in the process of expanding its capacity to produce young "spat" oysters from 750,000 last year to as many as 2 billion annually. It's been using about 70,000 bushels of shell bought by the state from eight oyster-shucking businesses, but that need is likely to nearly triple to about 200,000 bushels a year, said Mike Naylor, head of the shellfish program at the Department of Natural Resources.

Harris' Ruth estimates that the Gulf supplies 25 percent to 30 percent of the 160,000 bushels of oysters his business processes annually.

Donald W. Meritt, director of the Horn Point oyster hatchery, said even before the Gulf spill he and others were concerned about whether there would be enough oyster shells to expand his operation.

"If we saw a 20 to 30 percent reduction [in oyster shells], it may become a limiting factor in getting to our new production," he said.

There's no cause for worry for the next year or maybe two, though, as the state has stockpiled about 400,000 bushels, said DNR's Naylor. Naylor and Meritt both hope that the state's fledgling oyster farming industry will grow and produce more bivalves ¿ as well as shells for the hatchery. Should the supply run tight in the meantime, fossil oyster shells in the bay bottom could be dredged, though they're not as good as fresh shell at getting spat to set.

"If this oil stays in place and they don't get it cleaned up soon," said Harris' Ruth, "the effects will be felt across the board."

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