Fear of gulf seafood after spill hits businesses hard

On the day six weeks ago that the news first broke about oil gushing from the Deepwater Horizon rig, the line of customers at Joe Patti's Seafood in Pensacola stretched out the door. Everyone wanted to stock up on shrimp and fish while it was still safe to eat.

Sales boomed for three days, said Frank Patti, whose family opened the seafood house in 1930. Since then, he said, "my business has dropped off 22 percent.''

Fishermen and seafood dealers across Florida say the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has tainted the very idea of fresh shrimp and fish from the gulf. They say that although they are catching seafood only from areas not affected by the spill, some restaurants in other states are taking it off their menus and some grocery chains are removing it from coolers.

"They're concerned that seafood out of the gulf might be contaminated," said Steven Rash, whose Water Street Seafood in Apalachicola sells fish and shrimp to restaurants and groceries across the country.

"I had one of my big retail distributors in San Francisco who told me that a lot of people are just shying away from gulf shrimp now," Rash said.

Some seafood dealers, such as Salt Rock Grill's Frank Chivas, say they haven't seen any such effects at this point and sales remain strong. The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection, which oversees seafood sales, has collected no sales figures yet and cannot say whether the market as a whole has been affected.

But other dealers, such as Bob Spaeth of Madeira Beach Seafood, contend the drop in demand is happening all right. Spaeth blames the drumbeat of bad news about the spill and ignorance about geography.

"People don't really differentiate the state so much as the gulf," Spaeth said. "And when they say 'oil in the gulf,' and fish comes from the gulf, there seems to be some perception that the fish has oil on it, when only 30 percent of the gulf is closed."

As a result, he and his partners say, wholesale prices in places like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia have dropped as much as $1 a pound on grouper, and $1.50 on red snapper.

"The bottom line is, the seafood dealers and the commercial boats have all seen some economic loss due to the oil spill," he said. "And now it looks like the losses are going to get huge."

Large regional retailers say they haven't yet seen much price impact. Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten says the chain buys a minimal amount of gulf seafood. Sweetbay CEO Mike Vail says some products, such as Key West gulf shrimp, were previously harvested and frozen. A spokeswoman said the chain hasn't seen many price changes.

It's out-of-state buyers that present the real challenge, fishermen say.

The perception that something is wrong with all seafood from the gulf "is definitely hurting the movement of good product from Florida," agreed Bob Jones, executive director of Southeastern Fisheries, a professional fishermen's group.

Adding to the fishermen's frustration, Jones said, is that the National Marine Fisheries Service office in St. Petersburg has, as of Friday, closed off 32 percent of the gulf to both commercial and recreational fishing because of the oil spill. That's a bigger swath of the gulf put off limits to fishing than ever before, said Jones, who at 77 said he's never seen anything like it.

Part of what has been closed is an area where Madeira Beach's long-line grouper fishermen hauled in their catches.

"They basically have shut the long-line boats down," said Greg Pruitt, whose family runs Fishbusterz in Madeira Beach. He said he had just sent a boat to the biggest available area left, off the Dry Tortugas, only to see it shut down, too.

"I just sent a boat down there for one day to get sent home the next day. It's not pretty," he said.

But that area wasn't closed for long. On Friday, federal officials announced they were reopening a 13,653-square mile area near the Dry Tortugas because no oil was found there. At the same time, they closed a 2,275-square mile area near the Panhandle.

In the meantime, the boats are still reeling in fish where they can and trying to sell them to anyone who is willing to trust the government's closure system.

Spaeth said he's got 40,000 pounds of fish in the cooler now and another 40,000 pounds on boats coming in soon.

"We're trying to move them best we can," he said. "Hopefully we won't lose too much money."

Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or craig@sptimes.com. Becky Bowers can be reached at (727) 893-8859 or bbowers@sptimes.com.

Fear of gulf seafood after spill hits businesses hard

06/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 11:56pm]

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