CLEARWATER — This spring marks the 20th year that Rob Cameron has owned Ward's Seafood Market. But instead of planning a celebration, the 48-year-old is focused on government websites and keeping tabs on the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
With the slick continuing to spread from the BP oil rig explosion April 20, Cameron does not know if and when his business will be forced to stop selling gulf seafood. "Never in my wildest dreams did I expect an oil explosion like this in the gulf," he said.
"My game plan now is to monitor NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for closures and to continue educating customers. My employees explain things like which seafood is from the Gulf of Mexico and what is considered safe fishing areas," said Cameron, who uses local fishermen to bring in what he sells.
In the north end of Ward's Seafood, 1101 Belleair Road, sits an eating area with about six tables. Out of 23 entrees on the menu, 12 include seafood from the Gulf of Mexico.
Other items, like haddock from Boston and salmon from Scotland, arrive at Ward's in packaged filets. But in the back cooler, the local fish are kept whole. They are placed belly side down and packed in ice. Within two days, the mango snapper, red grouper and mullet are filleted by one of Ward's 12 employees and sold at the front counter.
Last week, the cooler was full. But as for this week, Cameron is in a "wait-and-see" position, he said.
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Cameron grew up in Long Island and received a bachelor's degree in business and marketing from State University of New York at Brockport in 1983. "Right after I got that diploma, my wife (Michele) and I moved to Florida in a Volkswagen Rabbit," he said. "I knew I didn't want a career where I jumped on the Long Island railroad everyday."
At first, they stayed in a relative's condominium on Indian Rocks. Cameron remembers the first fish he caught in Florida. "It was on the Double Eagle out of Clearwater," he said.
In 1986, while managing GreenStreets, a restaurant in Indian Shores, Cameron was hired by Wayne Widmark, then-owner of Ward's, as an assistant manager.
Cameron then purchased the company in 1990.
"I am an owner who came up through the ropes. I know every nook and cranny of this place," he said.
When his two kids (son Maxwell, 17, and daughter Haley, 16) were toddlers, they spent hours in the storefront. "Ward's for us really is a family business. My family grew up here," said Cameron, who now lives in Clearwater.
But even with all that experience, it's not like a career in the seafood industry is a cakewalk, he said.
Cameron recalls 2004: "We had basically four hurricanes, and here's what happens. People don't want to buy seafood two or three days before the storm hits. Then, we don't have customers during the hurricane. Then, once the power goes out, we have to stay closed. It's tough."
And even before the oil disaster, the last 12 months have been filled with rough spots. "First, the government put quotas into effect, which meant that a lot of our fishermen did not keep their business. Fewer fishermen, fewer fish coming in, our purchase prices were influenced," he said.
"Then, Mother Nature gave us a record cold winter. For stone crabs alone, I'd say this year wasn't even a season. On many days, the boats didn't go out due to the weather. And what happens to the claws when it gets so cold is the meat is hard for people to get out."
But since fewer than normal stone crabs were caught in 2010, that means 2011 might hold more, right?
"It depends on what happens with the oil," Cameron said.
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Last week, Cristian Feher, owner of Tampa Bay Personal Chef Service, perused the front case at Ward's, looking at the Florida oysters, snappers, groupers, stone crab claws and a small remaining selection of Louisiana crawfish.
"I'm loading up this week on things, like gulf shrimp and scamp grouper, because I'm concerned that we won't be able to purchase it later," Feher said.
If the oil affects the Gulf of Mexico seafood offerings, Feher will have to adjust. He's already strategizing his entrees.
"I'll have to do things like change one of my favorite dishes, red grouper stuffed with king crab. I'll need to put the king crab in another fish Ward's gets elsewhere," he said.
Last week, John and Fran Harris of St. Petersburg made the 30-minute drive from St. Petersburg to eat lunch at Ward's. The menu features local favorites, such as fresh fried oysters for $9.95, a gulf amberjack sandwich platter for $6.95 and a fried gulf mullet platter for $4.95.
"It's worth the time to come here because their fish is so nice and tasty," Fran said, "but we wonder, after we hear so much going on with the oil in the gulf, what is going to happen to good places like this?"