Gulf Spill, Economy Spark Seafood Concerns

OCEAN CITY – While the potential for oil from the ongoing
Gulf of Mexico spill reaching Maryland’s shore remains a long shot, fear and
trepidation is already beginning to affect the state’s seafood industry in the
height of the summer season.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley this week convened a
roundtable discussion in Ocean City including several of his department heads,
Ocean City elected officials, scientists and other stakeholders to discuss the
state’s preparations for the ongoing Deep Water Horizon crisis in the gulf.
While much of the conversation focused on the state’s response to the potential
for oil from the spill reaching the state’s vast coastal areas, the discussion
inevitably turned to the potential indirect impact on the state’s rich tourism
and seafood industries.

About 78,000 square miles of federal waters in the gulf
are closed to fishing, taking with it a significant source for fresh seafood
for much of the nation. According to Maryland Department of Business and
Economic Development (DBED) Secretary Christian Johansson, the Gulf accounts
for 73 percent of the shrimp processed and consumed in the U.S., along with 67
percent of the oysters and 25 percent of the blue crabs.

With such a large segment of the market out of commission
in the wake of the spill, wholesalers, retailers and ultimately consumers are
looking for alternative sources for their fresh seafood. Tradition-rich
Maryland is in a position to take advantage of the void, but several of those
in attendance at Tuesday’s roundtable discussion at Fish Tales voiced concern
consumer confidence in fresh seafood could be an issue, regardless of whether
it came from the gulf or not.

Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Fran
Phillips said one challenge has been to maintain the public’s confidence in
fresh Maryland seafood, despite the fact the spill in the gulf is several
hundred miles away and the potential for its impacts reaching the state are
very remote. Getting that message out is imperative going into the height of
the summer season, according to Phillips.

“The seafood is healthy,” she said. “Both Maryland seafood
and seafood imported to Maryland is completely healthy although we are
monitoring it.”

While the panel voiced concern over the supply of seafood
from the gulf this summer, particularly blue crabs, Chesapeake Bay Seafood
Industries Association Executive Director Bill Sieling said ongoing economic
issues, and not the spill in the gulf, could be the biggest obstacle for a
successful season for crabbers in Maryland.

“We’re at or near the height of our crabbing season and
we’re not impacted by a lack of supply, we’re impacted by a lack of demand,” he
said. “Our problem right now is the lack of a market. We need people to buy
Maryland crabs and crabmeat because they’re plentiful.”

Despite the apparent abundance of Maryland crabs and
crabmeat, prices thus far throughout the state have not come down in kind, for
the most part. With discretionary spending still tight for many Marylanders,
and visitors to Maryland, the price of crabs is still a detriment for most,
according to Sieling.

“What we’re seeing are some serious price anomalies, and
it’s not so much fear about the situation in the gulf as it is the economy,” he
said. “The retailers don’t like to lower prices, even if they have an
abundance. If they went for 80 percent profit instead of 100 percent profit, we
could move some Maryland crabs this summer. We’ve seen some charging $200 for a
bushel, which is just outrageous.”

Sieling suggested marketing and selling Maryland crabs and
crabmeat from a non-traditional source.

“We have 110 farmer’s markets in Maryland,” he said. “What
if they started selling Maryland crabs and crabmeat? It might spur consumers to
buy local seafood if it was available at the farmer’s markets.”

The toughest time, according to Sieling, could come in the
fall and winter when the local crabbing season ends and a reliance on crabs
from the gulf typically increases. With the gulf still likely under siege this
fall and winter from the effects of the oil spill, crabs could be scarce.

“The winter time is a whole different issue,” he said.
“There is a demand for crabs and crabmeat in the winter months and most of it
comes from the gulf. We could see a serious impact on the restaurant industry,
especially the crab houses and the seafood restaurants, this winter as this

Another seafood staple already taking a hit from ongoing
disaster in the gulf is the oyster. Sieling said there are about eight oyster
processors in Maryland, and while most are typically up and running during the
winter months when local oysters are harvested and processed, usually two or
three processing plants in Maryland remain open all summer to process oysters from
the gulf. However, none are currently in operation.

“Typically, two or three remain open in the summer, but
right now, there is currently no oyster processing going on in Maryland,” he
said. “I talked to one of the guys just the other day and he said he is
completely shut down. He is down $175,000 for the month of June and the month
isn’t over. If you extrapolate that out over the entire summer, you see where
this is going.”