Gulf oil spill; perspective on a disaster

by L. Joshua Sosland
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MCLEAN, VA. — While the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may crimp U.S. demand for seafood, the accident will not have a measurable effect on the overall supply of U.S. seafood, said Gavin I. Gibbons, director of media relations for the National Fisheries Institute, McLean.

In fact, the overall impact on fishing even in the Gulf will be limited, he said.

“As of May 5, 6,800 square miles of Gulf waters were closed to fishing,” he said. “That’s 6,800 out of a total of 600,000 square miles across the entire Gulf. People should know there is still fishing in the Gulf, and the fish that’s coming out of the Gulf and the fish that’s on its way to retailers is safe, healthy and certainly free of oil.”

Consumer perceptions of seafood are a major concern to the N.F.I., the largest seafood trade association in the United States. Its members span the gamut from fishermen, processors, restaurants and retailers to cold storage and transportation businesses.

“At this point, we really don’t expect a tremendous impact on the seafood that goes to processors or is at casual or quick-service restaurants or supermarkets,” Mr. Gibbons said. “What we don’t want is a secondary impact. What we fear is that people will shy away from Gulf seafood because they think it’s unsafe. The oil has created a ‘slow moving storm.’ You can track it, see where it goes and close the waters where it is and fish elsewhere. Fish swim away from it, too.”

Mr. Gibbons’ confidence that the supply of fish will not be materially affected by the oil spill is based on the small amount of seafood consumed in the United States sourced from the Gulf. He said that 83% of seafood in the United States is imported, and only 2% comes from the Gulf.

“Whether you are talking about fish sticks or the shrimp in the Chinese food you eat, most of it isn’t coming from the Gulf,” he said.

Shrimp ranks first among seafood species consumed in the United States, at 4.1 lbs per capita, according to N.F.I. data.

“That’s a reason many people have been asking about Gulf shrimp,” Mr. Gibbons said. “But while 75% of domestic shrimp comes from the Gulf, 90% of shrimp consumed in the United States is imported.”

Ranking second and third in popularity in the United States are canned tuna (2.8 lbs per capita) and salmon (1.8 lbs), none of which comes from the Gulf. Fourth is Alaska Pollock. Fifth is tilapia, again not from the Gulf. While significant amounts of catfish, which ranks sixth, come from Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, it comes from farms and not from the Gulf.

Even though the aggregate seafood supply in the United States is not imperiled, “that doesn’t mean that the Gulf isn’t representative of very rich fishing grounds with important oyster beds,” Mr. Gibbons said.

In 2008, commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico harvested 1.27 billion lbs of finfish and shellfish that earned $659 million in total landings revenue, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Oysters stand apart in terms of the risk of supply disruption, Mr. Gibbons said. About 70% of the oysters Americans eat come from the Gulf, he said.

“Thin fish and shrimp can swim away from oil,” he said. “Oysters cannot. The question is how long would it take to repopulate those areas. It could take years. We’re watching that very carefully.

“If your fishing area or oyster beds are in that zone of the oil spill, you will be impacted. These are the same people who were battered by Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Katrina. It’s potentially devastating and minimally, it’s very depressing.”

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