Oil spill reaches N.C. in form of oyster prices

Sellers, customers fear the hike may be a taste of things to come

Staff WriterMay 14, 2010 

  • 1.27 billion: Pounds of seafood harvested by commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico.

    188.3 million: Pounds of shrimp produced in the Gulf.

    4: Percentage of shrimp eaten by Americans that comes from Louisiana.

    67: Percentage of the American oyster harvest that comes from the Gulf.

    9: Percentage of the shrimp consumed by Americans that is harvested domestically.

    24 million: Recreational fishing trips in the Gulf region.

    All figures are for 2008.

    SOURCE: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

A few weeks ago, Earp's Seafood Market in Raleigh sold oysters in the shell for 40 bucks a bushel. This week they're 50 bucks.

Blame the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

David Salmon, the manager of Earp's, said he's just passing on higher costs - his profit per bushel remains $12 - and that so far he hasn't met price resistance from oyster fans. At any rate, he's much more worried about availability.

"If this spill continues, you might not get any oysters from the Gulf," he said. "I can see me not getting any oysters in the shell."

The gusher spilling into the Gulf hasn't affected the price or availability of most seafood. But most oysters Americans eat are harvested along the U.S. coasts, and 67 percent come from the Gulf region, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Economists and other experts have been warning that the cost of everything from coffee to tires could be collateral damage from the spill. The uptick in the price of oysters could be a leading indicator.

The Gulf's problems also are pushing shrimp prices higher, but to a lesser extent. Most shrimp we eat comes from overseas, but Gulf shrimp does account for nearly three-quarters of domestic production.

The unyielding law of supply and demand has sent frozen shrimp prices up 15 percent to 20 percent, said Brent Schilb, general manager of Inland Seafood's distribution center in Charlotte. Oyster prices are up about 40 percent so far, and the supply has been drastically curtailed.

"We're expecting another price increase," he said.

Washington Crab & Oyster Co. in Washington, N.C., a wholesaler and retailer, typically gets about 500 to 600 gallons of oysters each week at this time of year, said owner Tony Tripp. Last week he obtained only 200 gallons.

"We're going to be very lucky to have any product at all next week," he said.

A few Triangle restaurants have pulled oysters from the menu because of the spill.

Jason Smith, owner and chef of 18 Seaboard and Cantina 18 in Raleigh, said his decision to stop serving oysters at both establishments is a pre-emptive move in anticipation of future price hikes. He'd rather make menu substitutions, he said, in order to keep his prices reasonable.

Gary Bass, owner of Fishmonger's restaurant and seafood market in downtown Durham, said the shipment of oysters he's expecting Friday will be his last for awhile. He's decided to stop serving oysters - or selling them at his market - for the summer as a conservation effort.

"The oysters that we take now could be in the water spawning this summer," Bass said.

Quality questions

For some seafood aficionados, meanwhile, the fish still coming in from the Gulf is no longer appetizing.

Brenda Corbin, 57, of Raleigh, bought crab cakes and one-and-a-half pounds of shrimp at Earp's on Thursday to feed her family of four - but only after she confirmed that the shrimp she was eyeing weren't from the Gulf.

"It's polluted," she said. "I'd just rather stay away from it."

But William Calvert, 41, of Garner, who bought more than a half-dozen crabs that came from the North Carolina coast, said he sees no reason to avoid Gulf Coast products.

"It's more healthy than eating pork, chicken," he said. "It's the healthiest thing to eat."

The spill's effect thus far on restaurants and retailers varies considerably depending on who their suppliers are, as well as how many suppliers they have for oysters and shrimp.

"Availability isn't a problem because we can source from different areas of the U.S.," said Jennifer Thompson, spokeswoman for the Harris Teeter supermarket chain based in Matthews, N.C. Nor has Harris Teeter raised its prices as a result of the spill.

What will happen?

Several restaurateurs said they haven't been significantly affected yet, but they predict it's only a matter of time.

"I'm afraid to see what is going to happen if this oil spill continues to grow," said Brad Hurley, co-owner of the 42nd Street Oyster Bar in Raleigh.

Jim Casey, owner of Smiley's Seafood, a Raleigh distributor, said the price he paid for small-size shrimp - 150 per pound - harvested along the North Carolina coast has doubled recently because demand has spiked. But he's been absorbing much of that increase, rather than passing it on to his customers, because he frets that otherwise they'll just switch to shrimp from overseas.

"It is, in a sense, it's like the futures market," said Sean McKeon, president of the N.C. Fisheries Association, which represents the seafood industry. "People are buying, trying to stock up more."

But, he added, "nobody wants to benefit at the expense of somebody else's tragedy. ... Nobody is smiling and thinking, 'This is great.'"

Staff writer Andrea Weigl contributed to this story.

david.ranii@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4877

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