Waiting for the Oil Spill to Reach the Dinner TableBy GLENN COLLINS
Shrimpers, oystermen and crabbers already fear that the oil spill that has shut down fishing in a vast slice of the Gulf of Mexico may be a second Hurricane Katrina. But it has yet to seriously affect the nation’s dinner table, according to restaurateurs and suppliers.
If the spill cannot be tamed quickly, though, there will be an inevitable decrease in the availability and an increase in the cost of shrimp, oysters, blue crabs and a host of other seafood, they say.
“There is no immediate effect here right now,” said Joe Gurrera, owner of the Citarella stores and wholesale distribution operation. “At this moment in time, you wouldn’t notice any difference.”
Louis Rozzo, owner of F. Rozzo and Sons in Manhattan, one of New York’s largest distributors, who buys a large amount of red snapper and crabmeat from the Gulf, said he didn’t know how long that would last.
“We are all afraid of the long-term impact,” Mr. Rozzo said “It could have a huge effect that will last for years.”
Ed Brown, executive chef and an owner of Ed’s Chowder House in Manhattan, said that restaurateurs weren’t noticing any effects yet “because they fished until a few days ago, and the products are still in the distribution system,” he said.
But in coming weeks, “if we want to source fresh Gulf Coast oysters or shrimp, and we can’t get it, that’s got to drive the prices up,” said Mr. Brown.
Mr. Rozzo said, “Historically, red snapper and soft-shell crabs are big sellers for Mother’s Day, but I’m expecting that prices will be up by the weekend.” So far, commercial fishermen at the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico are unaffected by the spill, and Mr. Rozzo hopes to be able to source fish from there.
In New Orleans concern is rising over the impact of an unchecked spill on a vast commercial fishery that supplies not only shrimp, crabs and oysters to the tables of the Big Easy and the rest of the country, but also swordfish, shark, red snapper, menhaden, mackerel, mullet, amberjack, tilefish and grouper.
Shellfish and many species of commercially harvested fish are dependent on the fragile estuaries and wetlands that are an integral part of the ecosystems that could be devastated by an orange sea of invading sweet crude oil. Much of this fishery had only recently begun to rebound from the devastation of Katrina.
Already, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has restricted fishing from the Mississippi River east to the waters off Pensacola Bay in Florida “to make sure that we can maintain the public confidence in the safety of the food supply and made sure that members of the public aren’t at risk,” according to Ray Crabtree, a Southeast regional supervisor for the agency. Both Louisiana and Mississippi have already launched the process to apply for federal disaster aid.
The abundance of seafood from the region is second only to that of Alaska in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which cites studies estimating that some 100,000 local jobs are directly involved.
According to the agency, the Gulf of Mexico produced nearly three-fourths of the shrimp harvested in the United States in 2008, some 188.3 million pounds worth $130.6 million wholesale. Not only is Louisiana’s fishing industry a $3 billion sector of the state’s economy – according to a government agency, the Louisiana Seafood Marketing and Promotion Board – but beyond that, the Gulf Coast is the source of from a fifth to a third of the nation’s commercial fish and shellfish, according to various estimates.
Beyond this there is the impact on recreational fishing, since the Gulf region accounted for some 40 percent of the nation’s recreational fishing catch, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Paradoxically, next month had been set for the kickoff of both the New Orleans Oyster Festival and the Louisiana Seafood Festival. In the Crescent City, “I know just how much this disaster is going to sting,” said Mr. Brown, who once cooked in Begue’s Restaurant on Bourbon Street. Seafood “is a huge part of not only the economics, but the culture of New Orleans.”
If some Louisiana retailers have reported isolated incidents of shrimp and crabmeat hoarding, fresh seafood has a brief shelf life.
Ultimately, the spreading slick has the potential to be an economic and culinary catastrophe in the vast crescent of the 1,680-mile portion of the Gulf of Mexico that spans Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Texas.
Already, commercial shrimpers have filed class action lawsuits against BP, which leased the leaking rig, and other companies on behalf of “all Louisiana residents who live or work in, or derive income from” the Louisiana coastal zone, and who have suffered loss of income as a result of the still-unchecked oil spill. Similar lawsuits have been filed in Mississippi and Alabama.