The impact of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico hasn't been felt at local eateries and fish stores too deeply thus far, aside from a steep hike in the price of oysters, but area businesses think that will change.
Now heading into its third month, oil continues to pour into the gulf from the well damaged when a blowout April 20 destroyed the oil rig Deepwater Horizon. Eleven of 126 men on board were killed and oil headed toward Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coastlines. Efforts to cap the well 5,000 feet below sea level have failed and oil continues to spill at a rate of more than 500,000 gallons of crude oil a day (19,000 barrels), according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
On June 28, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expanded the closed area of the Gulf to cover 80,228 square miles, about 33% of Gulf of Mexico federal waters. This leaves more than 66% of Gulf federal waters available for fishing. This does not include any closures in state waters.
Tom Kehoe, partner at wholesaler K&B Seafood, which exports oysters and other shellfish internationally, said a lot of the impact is how customers handle negative publicity about the oil spill's affect on seafood in general. "Whenever seafood is hit hard, it has a negative effect. It's not good for the seafood business," he said.
On the flip side, he said, seafood companies today are strictly monitored and the government works to ensure the supply chain is safe. "We're in a different world than we were 100 years ago. Communication is much quicker. Precautionary measures can be transmitted almost instantaneously. We're in a much better place in terms of protecting our food supply."
Neither fish stores nor restaurants reported getting many questions from customers so far, a spot check of local businesses showed.
"It helps that it's summer and the tuna, swordfish and sharks already have migrated north," said Bill McLellan, chef at Jeff's Sea Food. "We have local tuna already from Montauk, along with blackfish, flounder and tilefish." There also was Canadian flounder, wild Scottish salmon, and Costa Rican tilapia on display along with the local offerings.
The store carried gulf shrimp earlier, and probably will get more later, but now has none, McLellan said. "We're really not taking it now because of that."
The worry is not so much contamination but the other shrimp providers jumping on the bandwagon and raising their prices, he said. The store gets shrimp from the Caribbean, Ecuador and Mexico, and occasionally from Thailand, and so far that price hike hasn't happened yet.
It has happened with oysters, though, Kehoe said. There's been a 40% to 50% spike in the price of raw oysters since the spill began as many of the coastal oyster beds in the Gulf close or fishermen work cleaning up the oil spill.
The real fallout, McLellan said, will be what's going to happen to the people around the gulf who depend on fishing for their living. "How much is BP going to pay out?" he asked. BP agreed last week to set aside $20 billion for spill-related claims and have the process overseen by attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who was chosen by President Barack Obama.
Kehoe agreed the impact will be deep and far-reaching. "We know oyster beds will be devastated and affected because of the oil," he said. "It's literally going to put generations of families out of business. They're going to have to move."
McLellan expects Jeff's Sea Food won't feel the impact of the gulf's closed fisheries until cooler weather arrives and seasonal fish availability changes. "The long-term effect you don't know," McLellan said.
At Honu Kitchen and Cocktails, assistant general manager Tim Monahan said customers don't bring the oil spill up much, either. "I would have thought we would hear a little more, but we have a lot of regulars who trust us to look out for them," he said. The restaurant also buys local food in season, including tuna from Montauk, he said.
"We expect that our cost is going to start to go up and things will get more expensive, but we haven't seen it yet," Monahan said. "As the effects are felt down in that region and buyers in that region are going to have to start dipping into other areas, then we expect that our cost is going to start to go up."
Tom McGrath and Ken Cummins, who stopped in for midday purchases Friday, said they didn't think the spill would affect Jeff's much because the store buys so much from local fishermen. "But hopefully they can cap the well," Cummins said. "Sooner rather than later. It's going to take decades to come back."
Some people are a tad more philosophical. David Kaplan of Huntington, who was taking a few minutes to munch on some shrimp outside Jeff's before heading home Thursday with the rest of dinner, said the effects of the spill were on his mind, but he trusted the staff at Jeff's to buy correctly.
He has another plan for dealing with the potential long-lasting effects of the spill. "I'm going to eat as much fish this summer as I can because I don't know what will happen," he said, dipping a shrimp into cocktail sauce and hoisting it high. "With hurricane season and the way the winds blow the tides, you just don't know."