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Wholesale seafood prices rising as oil spill grows

Some restaurants in the coastal Carolinas say they are seeing the price of some seafood they buy going up and the availability going down in the wake of a continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Restaurant operators say there doesn't seem to be an across-the-board pattern of limited availability or increased prices, and said they haven't raised their prices because of the oil problem.

Andrew Gardo, executive chef of the Sea Captain's House in Myrtle Beach, said shellfish availability and prices have been stable but finfish prices have gone up $1 to $2 a pound as the availability has begun to tighten.

Kurt Hardee, owner of Ella's of Calabash, N.C., say both the supply and prices of shrimp, a shellfish, have been impacted by the spill.

But Peter Gennaro, executive chef at the Hilton at Kingston Plantation, said he is having no trouble getting oysters from the Gulf and hasn't noticed any problems yet from the spill.

"There could be some gouging," he said of price spikes others are reporting.

Now, a month after an explosion ripped open the pipe delivering oil from the well and destroyed the well platform a mile above it on the surface, some area restaurateurs and suppliers are worried that the leaked oil could get into the Gulf Stream and destroy not only East Coast fishing industry but much of this summer's tourism as well.

Others, however, aren't convinced that oil in the Gulf Stream - approximately 55 miles off the coast - automatically translates into ruined beaches and fisheries.

The lack of a consensus reflects the newness of the situation and the seemingly daily changes in where the bulk of the oil is and where it is headed.

"It's the uncertainty of the whole thing that's got everybody on pins and needles," said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, who also said he's concerned about public perception.

While the federal government has closed nearly 46,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing, most of the state-controlled waters closer to shore remain open, Smith said Wednesday.

Overall, he said, 60 percent to 70 percent of oyster and blue crab harvesting areas and 70 percent to 80 percent of finfisheries still are open.

The limited supply of shrimp may be partly due to the spill, he said, but the overall stock was down going into the state's shrimping season because of the long, cold winter.

What shrimp were there may have been pushed offshore as state authorities released fresh water from the Mississippi River levee system to flood the state's Gulf Coast islands in an effort to hold the oil at sea despite onshore winds.

Additionally, Smith said, many of the state's shrimpers have been hired to help keep the oil offshore, keeping them from landing and selling shrimp as they normally would.

Whatever the reason for the shortages and price increases, Hardee said the squeeze hit at a good time. It happened when there was a drop in the number of diners because Mother's Day had passed, and Memorial Day has yet to arrive. The shrimp he buys went from $2.64 a pound to $4 a pound in a two-day period a week ago and oysters spiked by $6 a pound within the last week, he said.

Hardee recently tried to buy the entire quantity of shrimp his supplier had on hand, but only was allowed to get half of it. He has enough shrimp now for a couple of weeks, he said, and he's hoping the supply will pick back up as Louisana's shrimp move back toward shore and shrimpers shift back to harvesting the catch.

Hardee thinks that some of the price increase may be due to speculation, but understands that ultimately it is a matter of supply and demand.

"It's business," he said.

Other restaurateurs say they are watching the situation closely and, mentally at least, are thinking of menu changes that might be necessary as the scenario unfolds.

Adam Kirby, co-owner of Bistro 17 at Pawleys Island, said he believes wholesale seafood prices will go up across the board. He's not sure about supply, but said he's already looking at ways to adjust his menu, if it tightens so much he can't get the fish he wants.

"I'm one of the lucky ones," he said, "because I change my menu so much. We're just going to have to figure things out."

Area seafood suppliers said most of their seafood comes from the Gulf Coast this time of year, but like the restaurateurs, they were uncertain of what the longterm consequences might be.

Ted Hammerman, owner of Mr. Fish Seafood Market and Restaurant in Myrtle Beach, thinks the combination of a significant amount of crude oil in the Gulf Stream and an onshore wind could wipe out the area's tourism as well as its commercial and recreational fishing industry.

Additionally, Hammerman said, "If you get those tar balls washed up on the beach, we might as well pack up our bags."

John Haig, owner of Haig and Sons Seafood on Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., isn't convinced that oil in the Gulf Stream would be an automatic death sentence for area businesses.

He worries about the public's perception of the safety of the seafood they are served in area restaurants and what that could mean.

"If there's any suggestion of a problem, they'll stop eating, whether you have contaminated product or not," Haig said.

Smith says the public's perception is his biggest worry at this point. The oil had not gotten into the state's estuarine areas, essentially nurseries for juvenile seafood, when he made his comments Wednesday, but he was expecting an announcement that it may have contaminated small areas of marsh.

He said the board already believes it will take years of intensive marketing to rebuild the public's confidence in Louisiana-produced seafood.

He said the seafood being landed now is inspected by the state's departments of Health and Hospitals and Wildlife and Fisheries as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"We cannot afford anything bad going to market," he said.

Ray Riutta, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said he understands Smith's dilemma.

He said the Institute conducted an intensive, four-year to five-year campaign to rebuild the reputation of Alaska seafood after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Prince William Sound.

Although the area of that spill is important to the state's seafood industry, Riutta said, it covered just 10 percent to 15 percent of the state's total fishery area.

In much the same manner, the spill so far has affected a relatively small portion of Louisiana's fishery and the nearly 46,000 square mile federal Gulf closure is only 19 percent of its total fishing area.

No one knows exactly what will happen as the situation unfolds over months and likely years. But the seafood industry is global in nature and some area restaurateurs at least feel they will still be able to get the fish they need for their menus at the quality that they will not compromise.

Said Gardo, the Sea Captain's executive chef, "We'll find something."

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