June 10, 2010

Oil disaster may not affect seafood prices drastically, but Gulf remains in peril

Dave Love

Dave Love

Associate Scientist, Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

The Deepwater Horizon/ BP oil rig has been leaking for seven weeks and counting, and is already responsible for one of the worst environmental disasters in our nation’s history. The spill, among other things, highlights our intimate connection to aquatic ecosystems.


NOAA fishing area closure map

Last week, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expanded the Gulf of Mexico fishery closure area to nearly 76,000 square miles, (which is a surface area more than 1.5 times larger than the state of Mississippi) and which enshrouds much of the coastline (see below). High-number animal fatalities, such as dolphins (29 dead) and sea turtles (228 dead) are indicators of the impacts the spill has had and will have on marine life. Food system effects are already rippling through both coastal and inland seafood markets as some brace for potential increases in seafood prices.

Media reports understandably focus on the lives and futures of Gulf Coast fishermen, as well as the issue of tightening regulations on offshore drilling. But, aside from the disturbing images seen in the media, many are wondering how will those of us who do not live near the Gulf be affected?


shrimp trawler, wikipedia

One obvious impact is the supply and cost of seafood. Gulf Coast shrimp landings are substantial – 188 million pounds in 2008 – and represent nearly three of every four shrimp caught within the United States. The 90-day shrimp season, which typically starts on June 1, was opened 10 days early this year with the anticipation that the oil spill will eventually halt harvesting.

While it cannot be overstated how incredibly important this year’s shrimp season is for the day-to-day livelihood of Gulf fishermen, the average consumer will likely not be affected greatly. Shrimp have been a longstanding favorite seafood of Americans — we consume on average 4.1 pounds per person per year — and due to the spill one source estimates shrimp prices have increased by 10 percent. Others suggest that the real pinch may be felt later this year when last year’s supply of Gulf Coast frozen shrimp runs out.

Domestic shrimp production is only part of the story. When considering the sum of domestic production and imports and exports, the Gulf shrimp catch is just 12 percent of all shrimp sold in the United States (NMFS 2008). The international flavor of shrimp cannot be overstated — we import more shrimp from Thailand, Indonesia, Ecuador, Viet Nam, China, and in some years Mexico, than we harvest from Louisiana. From Thailand alone, we import 175 percent more shrimp than we catch for domestic sale (NMFS 2008). The same holds true for crabs. We import 150 million pounds of crabs and another 20 million pounds of crab meat each year, which easily surpasses the 50 million pounds of crabs caught by U.S. fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico (NMFS 2008).

Due to steady importation of shrimp and crabs to US seafood markets, sadly many consumers may not notice the drop in Gulf Coast seafood production and its root cause. While imports satisfy our demand for these products, I am concerned that if we turn our backs on the Gulf of Mexico we also turn away from the responsibility to restore the Gulf back to a productive, if not pristine, environment.

– Dave Love

One Comment

  1. The unfortunate financial plight of the Gulf coast fishermen as a result of the oil spill has a twist of irony. While the spill has negatively impacted their livelihood in one respect, many fishermen work for the oil companies during their off season. The industry now harming them is the one that has also nurtured them. This leaves this community understandably conflicted about seizing the opportunity to redirect our national energy policy away from fossil fuels. Yet we need their support on this issue since they offer a credible, pragmatic voice. Given the considerable taxpayer subsidies enjoyed by the petroleum industry for exploratory drilling, it would seem to be a wonderful opportunity to move a larger share of those public monies toward the budding industry of alternative energies. If some of this subsidized innovation could then be physically positioned along our Gulf Coast, it seems realistic that those whose lives have now been disrupted by the old ways could find employment in the new, investing these communities in the future rather than the past. Their buy-in to these new, exciting jobs, which they can pass on to the next generations with confidence, would go a long way to tip the balance toward new energy policies. Through such a single, simple overarching strategy we could recapture financial security for these coastal communities, reroute taxpayer support toward progressive policies, lessen our dependence on oil (domestic and foreign), make the U.S. a competitive player in the race to new energy technologies, and finally, allow the Gulf environment to heal as a complex marine ecosystem. Accentuating the injury to coastal economies, casualties to such megafauna as marine mammals, sea turtles and birds are serving as potent sentinels, signaling us toward a more rational and sustainable energy economy.

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