Gulf fish still good eating, despite public concern
GREG ABRAMS isn't sleeping well these days.
Abrams runs a 41-boat fishing operation in the Gulf of Mexico out of Panama City, Fla. Twice a week, his trucks deliver fresh fish to Samuels & Son Seafood Co., a family-owned wholesaler in Philadelphia that supplies most of the city's better restaurants and hotels with pristine seafood. Compared to last year, when his guys brought in 345,000 pounds of fish between April 23 and June 30, the catch this year from April 23 to June 9 is down to 196,000 pounds.
"BP hired half of my boats at $1,600 a day to do nothing, just ride around and do nothing. If they'd just spend the money to clean the oil up, but BP is just not doing what they're supposed to do," Abrams said.
The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig April 20 is an unmitigated disaster on so many fronts, but for fishermen, seafood wholesalers, restaurateurs and seafood-eating consumers, the catastrophe is still unfolding. The Gulf is America's chief spawning ground for seafood, giving up 40 percent of all of the fish and shellfish harvested in the continental U.S.
Rising prices and diminished supply are the first obvious ripple effects. Where it will end up is anybody's guess.
"I'm worried that crabmeat will become the new caviar," said Sam Mink, who owns Oyster House, on Sansom Street, the third generation of the Mink family in the restaurant business.
But a more immediate concern is reassuring worried consumers. In a two-day trip to the region earlier this week, President Obama emphasized that Gulf seafood is safe to eat and said that his administration would increase inspections and monitoring to keep it safe. "We don't want tragedies on top of the tragedy we're already seeing," Obama said.
Mink has fielded questions from customers worrying that seafood, from the Gulf in particular, isn't safe to eat. "We're trying to get the word out that all seafood comes from federally inspected waters - the FDA is monitoring everything. Harvesting from polluted waters isn't even an option."
Consumers need to understand that despite the oil tainting a third of the massive Gulf of Mexico, there is still plenty of healthy fish in the sea, say those familiar with the situation.
In New Orleans, a city renowned for its Gulf seafood-centric Creole cuisine, the chefs on the front line are putting on a game face. To date, more than 20 percent of the fishing grounds have been closed, forcing local shrimpers and fishermen to literally cast farther afield. At a seafood seminar, "Gone Gulfing," an event included in this year's New Orleans Wine & Food Experience at the end of May, Tenny Flynn, from GW Fins, and Brian Landry, from Galatoire's, weighed in on how the spill was affecting their bottom line.
"Prices are up, no doubt about it," said Landry. "I think the lower-end restaurants are affected more, because they can't charge higher prices for an oyster po'boy."
Added Flynn: "We've all been through a lot down here. If we can't get one thing, we'll just adapt and go in another direction. We believe in eating almost anything here - if you can catch it, we'll eat it."
Landry agreed that if the supply of one item - be it softshell crab, oysters or shrimp - dries up, he'll just take the menu in another direction. "We'll figure something out. The important thing is not to hit the panic button.
"And I don't plan on serving foreign shrimp," he stressed.
Before he was director of purchasing for Samuels & Son Seafood here, Joe Lasprogata worked in Venice, La., exporting Gulf tuna to Japan. "Those fishing towns in south Louisiana are the same as they've been for 100 years," Lasprogata said. "These people have been fishing for generations; it's their livelihood. There is no other source of income. You hear about offers of help and availability of equipment out of Europe but nothing's happening.
"I say, eat as much Gulf seafood as you can right now - this may be the last time you're going to get it for a while."
John Foy, who along with his wife, Bernadette, and daughter, Bridget, owns Bridget Foy's on South Street, has seen some prices nudge up 12 to 15 percent in the past month. "I would think that the worst of this is yet to come," said Foy. "But I think if one product isn't available, we'll just shift to something else. If fish isn't safe, it's not coming to market. It's not like there are a bunch of renegade fishermen out there on those waters."
Said Galatoire's Landry, "The only way you can personally support these fishermen and their families is to buy Louisiana seafood as long as it's available. It's the issue of sustainability that really worries me. We just don't know what's ahead."
Safeguarding the catch
If you've worried that tainted seafood could somehow end up on your plate, put your mind at ease, said Abrams, who offered some frontline insight into what happens before fish go to market.
"Every commercial fishing boat has something on it called a VMS - Vessel Monitoring System. It's mandated by the government and monitored 24/7. They know where the fish come from, what depth it was caught and the speed the boat was going at the time, down to the smallest detail.
"And besides all the monitoring and testing going on, commercial fishermen have pride; they take pride in what they sell. We know where to fish and where not to fish."
Before becoming a commercial fisherman, Abrams worked as a driller on an oil rig for six years. He's seen his share of oil spills, although nothing of this magnitude.
"This is bad, don't get me wrong, but it's a big ocean. If we have to fish different, in different areas and deeper water, then we will. You gotta' do what you gotta' do."
Casting toward the future
Despite the gloomy headlines, it's business as usual at Samuels & Son's sparkling, state of the art seafood-cutting plant off Packer Avenue, in South Philly. Any fears that Gulf finfish, like red snapper, amberjack, swordfish and grouper, were getting scarce because of the spill have so far been unfounded, said Lasprogata.
"Now's not the problem - it's what's going to happen in the future."
So far, he's seen any surplus shrimp inventories gobbled up as restaurants and hotels look to stockpile domestic product. "Farming is a good source of product, and beyond that, you're looking at shrimp from Mexico and South America. Now if the oil starts moving up the East Coast into Atlantic waters, we'll just have to wait and see."
Gulf seafood isn't on the menu at Fin, the new oceanfront seafood restaurant in the Tropicana in Atlantic City. But that's not because it's not safe to eat. Executive chef Demetrios Haronis is sourcing most of his fish from his home state of New Jersey, from scallops and clams to fluke.
"I'll run Gulf fish as a special if I can get it, but our focus is more about sourcing as much as we can from local waters," said Haronis, whose family had a restaurant on the boardwalk in Wildwood. He's been working in kitchens since he was 10.
At Fin, he explained, "we're doing an update on the old-style seafood houses, like the Lobster House and Zaberers - old-school quality, but with a modern feel." Fin includes a sushi bar, along with the raw bar featuring Cape May salts and other shellfish.
Haronis has seen the scary graphics that project what would happen if oil plumes were caught up in the loop current and pulled into East Coast fishing waters. It worries him.
"We really don't know how far it's going to go. Nobody knows right now. But scaring people isn't the answer. I've had a few questions from customers, and I just reassure them that this is a regulated industry. Now's not the problem. I think it's long term that we really have to worry about."