By Sabri Ben-Achour
The giant oil spill off the Louisiana coast has closed huge sections of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing. The Gulf supplies a third of the nation's blue crabs and two thirds of its oysters, things that the Chesapeake Bay produces, too. The increased demand should be good news for people who make their living from the Chesapeake’s bounty. And in some ways it is, but there are dangers ahead, too.
Captain Bob Evans sells seafood out of his back yard in Churchton, Maryland.
"I oyster, crab, fish, it's what I do for a livin'," says Evans.
And Captain Bob says that as much as he feels for his compatriots on the Gulf Coast, there is an upside for him. Seafood buyers who normally get their product from the gulf are already hitting the shores of the Bay.
"They have to come to us now, and it helps our economy a lot. During Katrina, our crab business doubled!," he says.
Prices are going up too.
At this wholesale seafood market in Jessup Maryland, fish scales are flying out of an electric descaling machine. Sean Martin is VP of Martin Seafood.
"Already I've started to see prices increasing, shrimp prices, crab meat prices, and this is the time of year that the Gulf would be coming into its production season," says Martin.
But those high prices are causing some problems too. Female blue crabs, for example, are normally used to make processed crab meat in what are called picking houses. But prices for female crabs have doubled. Tim Sughrue is vice president of Congressional Seafood.
"One of my pickin'houses told me yesterday, he's not pickin' cause he can't afford to buy the crabs and pick 'em, the crab prices so high he can't pick'em," says Sughrue.
And at the retail level, there's only so much people are willing to pay. If things get too expensive, restaurants will just take them off the menu. It's something Captain Bob worries about.
"You need to put crabs out where people can afford to eat 'em, cause the price of crabs has gone up so much, that it's a luxury item," says Captain Bob.
That’s not a widespread problem yet, and for now the higher prices have, for the most part, helped. But there's another danger.
Where it gets a little more complicated is what happens to the demand for seafood products in general.
Doug Lipton, an economist at the University of Maryland who specializes in the seafood industry, says people can get jittery about their seafood when a crisis hits.
"One thing that may happen is the markets for gulf seafood products - even from areas not impacted by the spill, will see a tremendous decline in demand. If that's the case, that will tend to have a depressing effect on prices," says Lipton.
Sean Martin, with Martin's seafood, says he is already having to reassure customers.
"People will ask when they go into the restaurant, and they'll ask about every type of seafood, whether it comes from the gulf or not, there will be a scare," says Martin.
Mike Hutt is with Virginia's Marine Products Board, he is already out promoting Virginia's seafood as safe and clean. But there's another downside to the gulf's problems.
"We have a lot of dealers who sell bait fish for crab and crawfish bait in the gulf region, and with their industry being shut down and very limited right now, it's certainly going to impact the business that our Virginia guys do in the Gulf region," says Hutt.
Where all of this settles out, the supply shortage, jittery demand, and reactions to pricing roller coasters - depends on just how bad things get in the Gulf. As one seafood wholesaler told me, "it's what we do for a living, riding that roller coaster."