Florida oysters are making their way back into the market at higher prices after a slowdown in harvest created by the gulf oil spill.
It wasn't that the Florida oyster beds — primarily in Apalachicola — were threatened by the oil. It was because the area's oystermen signed on to help with the cleanup effort.
"None of the oyster areas of Florida have been impacted. Oil never got anywhere near the Florida beds," said Terry McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "BP paid a lot of these guys to make their boats available on an on-call basis, meaning they couldn't go out and harvest. That resulted in a decrease in harvest, and an increase in prices."
The wholesale price of a box of Florida oysters has gone up as much as 25 percent compared to before the spill. There are a number of variables that make it more difficult to compare prices of smaller amounts over time, but retailers in the bay area are charging $6 to $7 per dozen this week.
One of the big draws at Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa is "happy oyster hour," when patrons can get a dozen raw oysters for $7.99, a discount of $2 off the regular menu price. But manager Vicky Dodds said that the deal was discontinued for about a month this summer when the restaurant had trouble getting oysters.
"There was a point that we didn't have any," she said. Happy oyster hour has returned.
Retailers say they have had varying degrees of supply over the past several weeks, accompanied by a big slip in demand as customers were concerned about safety.
"Everything slowed down just because of the unknown factor," said Rob Cameron, owner of Ward's Seafood in Clearwater. He said in-store sales slipped in the weeks after the spill, but shipping orders dropped significantly. "I guess people decided to eat chicken for a while. But seafood is probably safer now than ever, as much testing as they're doing."
Consumers don't have to worry about whether Florida oysters are safe to eat, McElroy said, adding that the beds are monitored by the state every day, sometimes more than once a day.
Ward's was out of oysters for six weeks, and has just started getting them again.
"I've been doing this for 24 years and I've never been out of oysters," Cameron said.
Gib Magliano, owner of St. Petersburg wholesaler Saveon Seafood, said he has been getting about half his normal shipments, but that his suppliers expect to be back to full production by next week. He said the scarcity of Florida oysters drove up the prices of other East Coast options.
At Central Avenue Seafood and Oyster Bar in St. Petersburg, manager Rui Sousa says they can go through about 3,000 oysters a week. Before the spill, most of the bar's oysters came from around the gulf, from sources in Apalachicola, Louisiana and Galveston, Texas.
"Sometimes there would be a gap and we couldn't get gulf oysters, so we had to get them from Virginia," Sousa said. He said that the Virginia oysters cost 60 percent more. For one thing, it's more expensive to ship in oysters from the East Coast.
"It wasn't a huge discomfort," he said, "but it was something we had to deal with carefully because you have to be very clear with customers where they are coming from."
Reach Jim Webster at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746.