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

Workers and customers at the Wharf in southwest D.C. and a crabber in Chesapeake Beach, Md., talk about how the oil spill has affected them.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010

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.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company