While fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico use their boats to scoop up oil from a rig that exploded off the coast of Louisiana in April, Tar Heel fishermen are gearing up for what could be a big year — thanks indirectly to a spreading slick that has crippled one of the nation’s most bountiful sources of seafood. By June, approximately 37% of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico had been closed to fishing. In 2008, Gulf fishermen harvested more than 1 billion pounds of fish and shellfish. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration says 67% of the oysters and 73% of the shrimp harvested in the U.S. annually come from the Gulf.
As fallout from the disaster continued, prices climbed for shrimp and oysters, two key seafood products in North Carolina. Oysters jumped as much as $10 a bushel within a month. Steve George, a salesman for Willie R. Etheridge Seafood Co. in Dare County, says shrimp prices rose 25-30% because “with the Gulf not fishing, there’s a shortage.” North Carolina’s prime shrimp season doesn’t get under way until summer, and oyster season runs from October to March. Prices could come down by the time the largest part of the seafood harvest reaches the docks. But Sean McKeon, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, doesn’t expect that to happen. “You will probably see a higher price to fishermen on the boats,” he says.
There’s no guarantee that they’ll have a good year, though. Shrimp catches, for example, totaled about 5.4 million pounds last year, a whopping 43% drop from 2008. The state Division of Marine Fisheries blames rainfall that dumped fresh water into saltwater where shrimp thrive. So far, sampling indicates there will be abundant shrimp barring a major storm and assuming the oil doesn’t drift around Florida and up the Atlantic coast. North Carolina’s harvest produces only a small fraction of the shrimp consumed in the U.S., and about 85% of the nation’s fish and shellfish is imported.
Shortages in the U.S. might prompt dealers to import more seafood, and that could provide some brake on price increases. Certain niches, especially shrimp, face fierce competition from overseas. William Small, director of seafood marketing for the state Department of Agriculture, says the industry has made headway in promoting North Carolina shrimp as a fresh, safe alternative to imports. “With increased prices, we’re nervous about losing our market share,” he says.