Gulf Oil Spill Has Oyster Lovers Shelling Out More

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Scott and Nancy Dunn are sitting in front of a big plate of oysters at one of the busiest seafood restaurants in New York, the Grand Central Oyster Bar. They're celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary, and the safety of their oysters is the last thing on their minds. It helps that none of their oysters have the Louisiana label. “We're enjoying oysters tonight from Washington state, Maine, Rhode Island and Oregon,” Mr. Dunn says.

BP's spewing oil well has forced the closure of a third of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing. Louisiana's seafood production has been reduced significantly, and now the largest consumer market in the country, New York City, is starting to feel the effects.

“I'm getting phone calls all the time," says Sandy Ingber, the executive chef at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. "What's going on? How are you affected? Are prices going up?"

The price difference is too small for the Dunns to notice, but they're actually paying more for their non-Gulf oysters -- about 10 cents more on a $1.85 oyster. Most of the oysters eaten in this country — about 70 percent — come from the Gulf. And vanishing supplies there mean oysters from other regions, like Washington and Maine, can command higher prices.

To understand how the Gulf spill is affecting New York, WNYC visited the New Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. The market, which serves the tri-state area, is the largest wholesale seafood market in the country. It’s housed inside a huge refrigerated warehouse that covers nearly seven football fields. There are three dozen businesses here, sourcing seafood from all over the world, including yellowtail from Australia, salmon from Alaska, stone crab from Mexico and shrimp from Thailand. Most of the seafood is packed in boxes with ice and the warehouse smells not of fish but of the ocean.

Scott Bernstein of JMS Seafood says since the spill, he's been losing nearly $10,000 in income a week. “We were selling 500 boxes a week of Gulf oysters. We don't get one now," he says. Bernstein has switched to sourcing oysters from Canada, Maine and Virginia, but these replacement oysters don’t make up the difference. “We went from 50,000 oysters a week to probably 3,000 to 4,000.”

And, Bernstein says, those 4,000 oysters are more expensive than the Gulf oysters, so he's losing his regular customers. “We have a lot of these Asian buffet places. And they want a good oyster but can only pay a certain amount. Now that item is gone for them. They're feeling the hit too, and then the consumer is feeling it.”

Bernstein says he's already filed papers to join a class action lawsuit against BP. “They're going to find out who's responsible. And you see, in today's business climate, the global economy, you try to maximize wherever you can."

Other suppliers are preparing for difficulties of their own. Anthony DeVito owns New Sea Food, a shellfish dealer located at the Fulton market. He says he doesn't source much seafood from the Gulf, so the oil spill hasn't affected his business -- yet. “The way it's going and supposedly coming up the Gulf Stream, it's only a matter of time before it affects us, because we do get fish out of the Carolinas and Florida."

And one thing you realize walking around the New Fulton Fish Market, if the wholesaler isn't worried about the Gulf spill, he's probably worried about something else. "We got our own issues," says Anthony Grippa of Universal Seafood, which specializes in selling salmon. "There's a major disaster down in Chile."

Grippa says the recent earthquake and an infectious salmon disease have severely cut the supply of salmon, forcing prices to skyrocket. That earthquake in Chile happened almost four months ago, and Grippa is still feeling its impact. The oil spill is ongoing. So for New York City businesses buying seafood from the Gulf, the spill’s effect has only just begun.