News / USA

    Seafood Industry Damage Limited to Gulf of Mexico

    Imports keep seafood on plates nationwide

    The oil spill threatens Gulf grouper. But prices have not increased yet.
    The oil spill threatens Gulf grouper. But prices have not increased yet.

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    Sellers of fresh seafood are starting to feel the effects of the oil leak that continues in the Gulf of Mexico, but experts say imported fish will keep supermarkets nationwide stocked.

    At Captain White's Seafood City, one of a cluster of fresh seafood vendors in an out-of-the-way corner of the Washington, DC's waterfront, owner Sonny White says oyster prices have doubled since the oil spill closed some oyster beds in the Gulf states of Mississippi and Louisiana. He's worried that soon oysters will be too expensive to sell.

    "Oysters are what would really hurt us to begin with," he says. "We go through hundreds of bushels a week of oysters. We'd just hate to lose that business."

    He wouldn't say how much he earns from oysters, except to say it's substantial.

    Shrimp is among the Gulf of Mexico's best-known seafood. But 90 percent of the shrimp in the United States is imported.
    Shrimp is among the Gulf of Mexico's best-known seafood. But 90 percent of the shrimp in the United States is imported.

    Current impacts minor

    Across the parking lot at Jessie Taylor Seafood, manager Ryan Evans says the oil spill hasn't been a big deal for his business — yet.

    "It could turn into a very big deal," he says. "At the moment, it isn't such a major problem. Shrimp prices are starting to increase a little, but if this continues, yeah, it'll definitely be a major problem."

    So far, he says, he's had to raise his prices for shrimp from the Gulf by about fifty cents a kilo. The price of valuable fish like king mackerel, grouper and snapper could also go up, but hasn't yet.

    Sales of seafood from the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico totaled $660 million in 2008, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. But while the local impacts in the Gulf states could be devastating, the rest of the nation might not see much of an impact. That's because most Americans shop for seafood at supermarkets rather than at fresh fish stands, and supermarkets get most of their seafood from overseas, according to Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the industry-sponsored National Fisheries Institute.

    Big and small buy imports

    "[More than] 83 percent of seafood is imported," he says, "and that includes 90 percent of all shrimp. So, while the seafood that comes out of the Gulf is iconic and people ask for it by name, broadly, it doesn't have the same impact in terms of sourcing for big grocery store chains."

    Gibbons says while the big supermarket and restaurant chains don't rely as much on Gulf seafood, the small businesses that do are more likely to suffer.

    Sonny White of Captain White's Seafood City says about 20 percent of his catch comes from the Gulf, and he gets quite a bit from the Atlantic ocean. But he also buys imported shrimp, tuna, and other seafood from the Philippines, China, and other countries.

    Sympathy for Gulf fishermen

    So he's not too worried about how the oil spill will affect him.

    "It wouldn't put us out of business. We've been through a lot," he says. But, he adds, "It's going to hurt the people who depend on the Gulf for a living. I mean, I really feel sorry for them because they're going to be out of business."

    White says one scenario that does worry him is if the ocean currents carry the oil spill out of the Gulf and into the Atlantic Ocean, where a lot of his seafood comes from. If that happens, experts say, the impact could go far beyond the fishermen in the Gulf.


    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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