Gulf spill pinches Maryland seafood industry

Oysters, shrimp most affected, crabs ample for now but pricey

  • Ed Goodwin opens a bushel of Gulf crabs, the last crabs he thinks he'll see from the Gulf due to the oil spill.
Ed Goodwin opens a bushel of Gulf crabs, the last crabs he thinks… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
May 28, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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