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Oil hasn't hit South Atlantic, but its effects on business reverberate already

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010; A01

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. -- Paul Pointer was speeding north along Florida's eastern coast in a rented Ford SUV, guzzling Mountain Dew, heading to a dock to buy tuna and swordfish so fresh the tails were still curled in rigor mortis. This was no ordinary business trip for Pointer, who buys seafood for 38 Whole Foods Market grocery stores in the mid-Atlantic region.

At every step along the journey between what's caught in the sea and what lands inside Washington area supermarkets, fear about the impact of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is palpable: Will the oil creep into the South Atlantic this summer, imperiling Pointer's reliable bounty of fish? Will this be one of his last big catches of tuna and "swords" until the oil comes?

"The oil is going to get here eventually, even if BP capped the well today," said Pointer, 42, head of the Whole Foods mid-Atlantic seafood processing facility in Prince George's County. "I'm no scientist, but I'm also not a moron. If oil comes here, it would be a heck of a lot bigger impact for us" because fish from the South Atlantic is a much larger part of the store's seafood sales.

The story of one catch of tuna and swordfish -- starting 120 miles off the Florida coast at Cape Canaveral and ending with Whole Foods customers in Annapolis -- is a chain of rattled players in the seafood industry, all hundreds of miles from the gulf. The oil spill has inflated how much Pointer spends on gulf shrimp by $2 to $4 a pound, but his bigger worry is the fate of his South Atlantic tuna and swordfish.

Whole Foods prides itself on selling fish with labeling that clearly notes its source. But if South Atlantic fisheries are shut down, Pointer would buy more imported fish, which sometimes cannot be traced back to ensure that it meets the environmental standards of Whole Foods. Or Pointer will pay higher prices for domestic tuna and swordfish caught farther north off the East Coast.

Either of those strategies would trigger harsh consequences for other players along the supply chain: When Pointer pursues imports, that hurts Scott Taylor, a partner of Day Boat Seafood, a Florida company that relies on buyers such as Whole Foods to pay premium prices for seafood caught using rigorous environmental standards. Already, Taylor said, the oil spill has damaged his business, first when tuna and swordfish production in the gulf along Florida's panhandle declined and then when cheaper foreign imports flooded the market, lowering the price Taylor can command for his domestic tuna and swordfish by $1 to $1.50 a pound.

"The consumer doesn't stop eating," Taylor said. "It's just that more dollars are flowing overseas to a different source. I had one of my customers tell me that he bought a swordfish from a dealer in Boston" for less than Taylor charges for a Florida fish -- and that fish was from South Africa.

The fishing industry's woes will only worsen if oil lands in South Florida and the South Atlantic. Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a forecast showing a "61 to 80 percent" chance that oil sheen, tar balls and other oil remnants would come within 20 miles of Florida's east coast from the Keys to Fort Lauderdale by Aug. 18.

Giant Food, based in Landover, said in a statement that the oil spill has "minimally affected" its seafood business; a Safeway spokesman declined to comment.

Checking out the catch

On a recent Wednesday morning, Pointer pulled his SUV up to a dock in Fort Pierce, Fla., about an hour north of West Palm Beach, to meet up with Day Boat Seafood's Taylor. A long-liner docked, and Pointer moved closer to see what was being hauled out:

First, dozens of slick yellowfin tuna, beheaded, their yellow pointy fins framing their shiny gray skin, their dark red flesh oozing out. Next: swordfish, also beheaded, with white and pink flesh and tight veins embroidering the white meat.

Pointer needed to buy about 4,500 pounds of fish. He had to decide which fish -- ideally, the most aesthetically pleasing meat -- pronto. His delivery truck was leaving later that afternoon, scheduled to arrive at the Whole Foods plant in Landover by Friday morning, so the fish could make it to stores that day for the weekend buying rush.

Pointer said he considers Taylor a mentor, but their kinship has its limits. They have known each other since Pointer was 19 and Taylor was his boss at a Baltimore wholesale seafood company. But they are also men who need to make their margins.

"This is a lot of pressure on me to keep supporting these guys down here," Pointer said. "It's very difficult when imports are so cheap because domestic fishermen want to keep their prices stable. And if the oil comes, it will cause a panic and a price spike on Atlantic fish."

At the dock, Pointer and Taylor appraised the fish as one of Taylor's employees pierced it with a rod to grade the flesh. Pointer craves the highest grade tuna -- with dark red, translucent flesh -- but was concerned that supply was low and prices above average.

He was willing to pay $8 a pound for the best tuna, a buck less for a lower grade. Taylor didn't want to sell cheap, but he also wanted to please his prized client.

"This is a nice fish," Taylor said, sounding confident.

"It's all right," Pointer said, poker-faced. Then the tuna got its grade: 2-plus. Very good, not perfect. Not quite a 1.

Considering imports

Taylor's crew finished unloading, but Pointer needed more swordfish, so he agreed to see what Taylor's second boat would bring later that day. If there was no more swordfish, Pointer would buy Panamanian imports.

Meanwhile, Pointer agreed to check out some snapper and grouper at Taylor's warehouse, back near West Palm Beach.

At the warehouse, Pointer was like a child in a toy store, browsing crates teeming with pink snapper and mottled charcoal grouper. "I'm going to take it all!" he said, picking up a snapper. "I'll take the cobias, too."

"That's out of the Keys," Taylor said. "Next week could be it; you never know. I'm not convinced that the oil hasn't already come. I am concerned about what I can't see."

Taylor said suspicions about the spill have imposed a Catch-22 on his industry. "If we as fishermen say that the stocks are healthy, environmentalists will say we're greedy," he said. "If we say we're seeing some of the effects of this, they'll shut us down."

Pointer, meanwhile, had a flight to catch. But first, he pulled out his cellphone and called his second-in-command in Prince George's with an order: Go ahead and buy those Panamanian swordfish.

Two days later, at 5 a.m. Friday in Landover, a delivery truck carrying Pointer's order of swordfish and tuna from Florida backed into the Whole Foods plant. Workers carried the boxes into a refrigerated cutting room and washed their knives.

Here, fish would be cut down to the most edible core -- collars, skins, unsightly bloodlines all sliced off and sent to a Virginia pet food company -- and shipped to grocery stores later in the morning, in time for customers' dinner parties and cookouts.

First up was a 90-pound swordfish. The bosses didn't like what they saw. The meat's color was faded pink; the bloodlines looked splotchy. So they decided the meat would get cut into chunks and sold for grilled kebabs at much cheaper prices. Taylor would get a phone call telling him he'd be paid less for that swordfish since it didn't live up to its grade.

Next came a big tuna, dark red and translucent. Soon, 40 pounds of it was cut up, bagged, tagged and packed into a crate, which went inside a white box truck headed to a Whole Foods store in Annapolis. Here, Nate Clubine, a 27-year-old-seafood team member and computer musician, would take over.

Clubine cut the loins into steaks and printed out the tuna's price tag: $19.99 a pound, a markup from about $8 that Whole Foods paid at the dock. (The markup is less than it might seem, considering that Whole Foods uses only a little more than half of each fish.) Delicately, Clubine laid out the tuna steaks in the store's fresh case.

Finally, a customer approached the counter. JoAnn Harrison, 56, an IT specialist at the IRS, locked eyes with Clubine. She was picky. "Can I have the third one down?" the Anne Arundel County resident asked.

Clubine handed her the .91-pound tuna steak, wrapped.

Harrison said she planned to sear the tuna, adding some spices, and serve it for dinner with her husband that night. As she pushed her cart -- carrying cheese and now fresh tuna -- up the aisle, she said she felt no need to ask whether the fish had been caught in the gulf or near a contaminated area.

"If they're going to put it on the shelf," she said, "it's got to be good."

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