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Gulf seafood suppliers struggle, and wait

(June 16, 2010)—Suppliers, fishermen, restaurateurs and retailers across the United States are stocking up on Gulf of Mexico seafood, redeploying boats and increasing purchases of imported seafood in an effort to brace themselves against the uncertain fate of the region’s fisheries.

The Gulf shellfish industry has been the most immediately impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, with fresh shrimp and crab supplies dwindling and Gulf oysters becoming increasingly difficult to source, as fishing closures increase.

Many restaurants have been stocking up on Gulf shrimp. Curtis Wierbicki, co-owner of Chicago’s Tin Fish Restaurant, offered cash for 1,000 pounds of Gulf shrimp, while Bob DiCola, owner DiCola’s Seafood in Chicago, stockpiled 10,000 pounds of Gulf shrimp. Frank Chivas, co-owner of Florida’s Salt Rock Grill, Rumba, Marlin Darlin’ and Island Way Grill, purchased 50,000 pounds of shrimp following the spill.

“We’re going to see the price of shrimp, grouper and other fish rise. Gulf oysters could be non-existent. This could affect things for decades,” said Chivas.

“Crabs and oysters pulled from the Alabama and Mississippi coast are most affected right now. Shrimping will also be severely impacted,” said Yonnie Patronis, co-owner of Capt. Anderson’s Seafood in Panama City Beach, Fla., who has reached out to Central American and Mexican suppliers to fulfill demand and stocked enough seafood to last through the rest of the year.

Others, like Greg Abrams, owner of Abrams Seafood in Panama City Beach, Fla., and operator of 53 fishing boats in the area, have redeployed their fishing fleets beyond the fishing closures to Texas and South Carolina.

“I have boats down in Florida and when they come back I’ll go to Texas to get shrimp. Right now we have no local oysters, no fresh crabmeat, no head-on shrimp, except for what’s coming from Florida,” said Charles Kraver, president of Deep Sea Foods, a seafood processor in Bayou La Batre, Ala. On Tuesday, one of Kraver's shrimp boats reported seeing oil as far east as Apalachicola, Fla. and was forced to move three and a half hours off Mobile, Ala. 

“Our shrimp supply has been decimated because BP has hired all the fishing boats, so unloading plants have nothing to unload, processing plants have nothing to process. We should be processing 60,000 to 100,000 head-on shrimp per day, and we’re just sitting with our overhead,” added Kraver.

The price of domestic Gulf brown shrimp has risen substantially since the spill, with shell-on, head-off 21-25s jumping from USD 4.20 a pound on 22 April to USD 6.40 on 7 June. As of 8 June, 16-20s were averaging USD 7.40 to 7.50 a pound, up USD 2.85 from last June’s. The largest weekly price increase of 2010 for 21-25s was a USD 0.38 jump from to USD 5.43 between 3 and 10 May.

“The 21s were the toughest shrimp to find in the last couple of weeks. I was probably paying right around USD 5 before April 14 and now I’m paying USD 6.25 to 6.50,” said Robbie Walker, owner of the Louisiana Seafood Exchange in New Orleans. “Two weeks after the spill we started seeing prices taking some pretty sharp increases, and that’s when the panic started where the processors didn’t want to quote prices because they were bombarded with a surge of panic buying. And when we finally got some pricing we could work off of it was 15 to 25 percent higher.

“Now we’re experiencing a lack of vessels because BP’s paying them to be on the cleanup crew so they’re staying off the fishing ground,” he added. “My shrimp suppliers are lining up the possibility, and if I have to import I’ll turn to Mexico, but I still believe we’ll have shrimp. Our biggest concern is consumer confidence and the decline in demand that seems to be starting to take foot.”

Though two-thirds of U.S. Gulf of Mexico waters remain open to fishing and product is still being harvested, some seafood suppliers are temporarily shutting down their operations, while others continue to struggle, and wait.

Deep Sea Foods was forced to shut down its crab and oyster processing plants, which bring in an average 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of Gulf crabs and 1,000 pounds of Gulf oysters per day.

“I’ve been in business 33 years. My children have followed the business, and there’s a question of whether we’re going to have that,” said Kraver.

“We’re in an area that has been closed, and we have decided to call it quits right now because our boats aren’t trawling,” said Kimberly Chauvin, owner of Mariah Jade Shrimp Co. in Chauvin, La. “I’m a small processor, but some larger processors still have product available and will keep going.”

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