A Look at How the Gulf Oil Spill Impacted Oysters in the Chesapeake
Local experts say they saw a decrease in both prices and demand in the 2010 oyster season.
After the BP oil spill last April caused massive closures of fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, the lack of competition from Gulf coast seafood suppliers was good for Maryland watermen as the season opened. However as the oyster season progressed, locals saw a slip in both prices and demand.
Maryland watermen often compete with Gulf Coast fisheries because some Maryland seafood distributors purchase crabs, oysters and shrimp from Gulf suppliers. Did the closures in the Gulf affect business here?
The first closures occurred just over a week after the disaster and continued to expand following multiple failed attempts to stop the leak. According to Reuters, by early June, 37 percent of fisheries in the Gulf were closed to fishing. The most recent closure occurred on Nov. 24 when the NOAA announced that another 4,200 square miles would be closed to watermen due to risk of oil contamination.
Initially the outlook was good for Maryland watermen. News came about a month after the spill that there was little chance of any oil reaching the Bay-riding ocean currents. The DNR released a statement addressing public concerns on May 26 stating that the probability of oil reaching the bay and impacting wildlife was low. The closures did impact seafood prices though, particularly oyster prices.
Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industry Association said the spill did have an impact on the Maryland seafood industry. Sieling said this year he had to address numerous public concerns over possible contamination of the Bay.
"I had calls all summer about the impact of the Gulf spill and I can tell you at that point there was virtually no impact," Sieling said.
As far as the industry is concerned, Sieling provided some perspective on the issue. "Only about 10 percent of the seafood we consume here is not imported, so right away 90 percent of the supply was unaffected," Sieling said.
In an article published in the fall 2010 issue of the DNR's The Natural Resource, assistant director for the Fisheries Service Mike Naylor investigated possible impacts on the Chesapeake Bay oyster program caused by the spill. He explained that just over a week after the spill state officials in Louisiana closed many oyster beds in the Gulf region. It was well into July before many areas were reopened but Naylor writes that those closures had an immediate impact on the market.
"The decreased supply led the remaining distributors to increase prices from $25 to as much as $40 per bushel."
Sieling also provided insight on the initial rise in oyster prices. Apparently because the oyster supplies were cut off from the Gulf, this artificially inflated prices here at home.
"When oyster season started in the northeast in mid-September, early October, the price [for oysters] was artificially high because people anticipated a shortage from the Gulf," Sieling said.
Bob Evans is a local waterman and owner of Bob Evans Seafood in Churchton. He said the initial rise in prices caused by a lack of competition from the Gulf was short lived. As other oyster seasons opened elsewhere, particularly North Carolina, Maryland watermen saw their prices begin to fall.
"This year oysters were priced higher at the beginning of the season because we were not competing with the oysters from the Gulf. But the oyster season opened in North Carolina and our prices came down," he said.
Evans said that an unusually successful year in North Carolina meant there was even less impact on the supply of oysters on the market.
"Virginia is the largest oyster shucking market in the country and when they start buying from other places our [watermen] prices come down," he said.
As the season progressed, prices continued to fall for Maryland watermen and by mid-November some had reached a breaking point. Just before Thanksgiving nearly all the watermen in Talbot, Somerset and Dorchester counties went on strike to protest the price drops.
Apparently the closures in the Gulf did not have the anticipated effect on the supply of oysters. Couple that with overall low demand for oysters and perhaps Maryland watermen simply fell victim to economics.
Sieling again clarified the issue saying that although the closures in the Gulf cut off the supply of oysters, there were still plenty of oysters to go around this year but demand was down. Now distributors are finding it difficult to find public demand for oysters to match the supply.
"They're a glut on the market...now there's more oysters than ever and demand is way down," he said.
Seafood distributors here in Edgewater seemed relatively unaffected by the closures in the Gulf. Rick Bryant of Annapolis Seafood said the business did not really feel any impacts and offered an explanation for why demand was so low.
"It didn't really affect us too much, but the negative news about seafood may have made people leery about what they are eating," he said.
Tim Fath owner of Chesapeake Seafood said there was little to no impact on his business related to the closures in the Gulf.
"The Gulf didn't really affect us. The price of oysters started out quite high but it's come down a little bit at a time," he said. "On my end of it I really didn't see much, other than less people buying oysters…it's a demand thing."
Despite the supply and demand issues in the oyster market, Sieling was confident the Maryland seafood industry remains strong.
"Our industry is in fairly good shape here in Maryland. We had an excellent crab season, the clamming industry is coming back and oysters are still available," he said.