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Gulf oil spill: Feared seafood shortages become reality

May 14, 2010 |  3:35 pm

Market

Three weeks after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig created a leak in the ocean releasing some 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the water, seafood shortages are starting to plague markets in New Orleans and throughout the country.

The spill is especially affecting shellfish such as oysters, shrimp and crawfish.

Many locals complain about the uncertain nature of the fishing seasons. The Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries has opened and closed shrimp and fishing seasons since the spill, so it’s difficult for vendors to know when they’ll have product to sell on any given day, and for fishermen to know when they’ll work next.

Fisherman Hewitt Gauthier was going to go out and find some shrimp this week, since authorities had said they were opening the shrimp season. Then they closed it abruptly Sunday night. “I’m glad I didn’t load up on ice and fuel, I would have lost a lot of money,” he said, standing in the Empire Boat Harbor, cleaning out his propeller, which had gotten tangled up in a net.

That means less catch to sell to places such as the Westwego fish market just outside of New Orleans.  Crab

“It’s very limited,” said Faye Taravella, of Ruth’s, a stand where piles of dark red crawfish tried to climb their way out of buckets as white shrimp sat on ice. Shrimp prices have gone up 50 cents already, and there are fewer sizes to buy.

When fishermen call saying they have shrimp in, “you go as soon as you can,” Taravella said.

The stand next door, Ruthann and Rob’s, would usually be packed with coolers of shrimp, crawfish, oysters and crabs, said Robert Graves, the stand’s owner, as he moved blue crabs from one crate to another with tongs as they tried to scuttle out of his grasp. Customers are coming in asking if the shrimp have oil on them – some even ask if they have to put oil in the pan when they fry the shrimp, or if the oil from the spill will wash off into the pan.

“Customers are scared of the oil,” he said. “If this keeps up, everyone’s going to be jobless and broke.”

Jason Millet, of Amy’s Seafood in Westwego, is preparing by freezing the shrimp that he does have, for when the supply dries up. He’s planning on pouring water over the 1,500 pounds of shrimp and storing them in a lock-in freezer.

Customers can taste the difference between frozen and fresh shrimp, especially people that grow up around seafood, said Angel Plaissance, a waitress at a local diner in Westwego.

“It’s not the same,” she said.

Ruthann But frozen shrimp is better than no shrimp at all for Gezelle Broussard, who was shopping at the Westwego fish market Thursday morning. For the past few weeks, she’s been buying 40 pounds of shrimp and freezing what she doesn’t use for cooking. Fried shrimp, jambalaya, boiled shrimp, gumbo -- most of the dishes she cooks contain shrimp, she said.

As the prices tick up, she’s wondering how much longer she can continue to buy shrimp, especially in the recession. She doesn’t want to change her habits, though.

“Without shrimp, what is New Orleans?” she said, climbing into her car with her shrimp and driving away.

-- Alana Semuels, reporting from New Orleans

Photos: Top: Empty stands in Westwego, La. Middle: Blue crabs scuttle in the market. Bottom: Ruthann Graves says it's nearly impossible to get oysters in Westwego. Credit: Zach Winnick via Picasa

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