Seafood prices up, but don't blame BP

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 11, 2010 - 10:06 PM

The Gulf oil spill has had little impact on seafood costs in the Twin Cities because little of our seafood comes from the Gulf.

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At Coastal Seafoods, where Damon Holston heft­ed a fish, only Texas brown shrimp are from the Gulf.

Photo: David Denney, Star Tribune

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Not long after oil started spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, a Twin Cities co-op stopped buying Texas brown shrimp from Coastal Seafoods. "Their customers assumed it was full of oil," said Tim Lauer, Coastal's general manager.

In short order, the local prices of shrimp and oysters, another product closely associated with the Gulf, started inching up, to no surprise of consumers. "Customers seemed to expect that because of the spill," Lauer said.

Turns out the customer is not always right. Myths and misconceptions have abounded since the oil spill, but this much has become clear:

Not much of our seafood comes from the Gulf. And the price spikes have little to do with the spill.

"We're seeing the price of oysters go up, and the price of shrimp has jumped very, very dramatically in the last 30 days," said Larry Braufman, co-owner of American Fish & Seafood Inc. in Hopkins. "But the price hikes we've seen are more because production in Mexico is down, production in Southeast Asia is way, way off and production in South America is way, way off.

"There's no question that supplies are down, but not just because of what's happening in the Gulf area."

In landlocked Minnesota -- about 400 miles closer to Hudson Bay than the Gulf of Mexico -- it's often easier and cheaper to get seafood from one of the coasts or elsewhere in the sprawling world market. (The lack of direct flights from the Gulf Coast to the Twin Cities has hampered distribution.)

"We get next to nothing from the Gulf," said Sea Change restaurant manager Loren Zinter, estimating that less than 5 percent of his inventory comes from there. "We haven't had to take anything off the menu."

Oceanaire chef Rick Kimmes said he also gets "very little product from the Gulf, unfortunately, or fortunately maybe."

Even items that many consumers might associate with the region rarely make their way up here. Most local seafood purveyors say they favor cold-weather oysters. Coastal gets its grouper from Hawaii and its crayfish from China.

"Most of the seafood harvested from the Gulf is consumed in the states surrounding the harvest area," said Lilia M. Rodriguez, external communications manager for Cub Foods.

Some supplies, though, have dried up. Braufman said he no longer gets Gulf oysters because "our oyster farmers have been working for BP on the cleanup."

Prices hard to predict

None of the seafood purveyors was willing to predict where prices would go, with the market veering so wildly and the future of Gulf Coast fisheries in question.

"It's just unreal how much prices have gone up, just dramatically, the highest I've seen in 36 years in the business," said Burt Malinsky, manager of Sea to Sea wholesale outlet in St. Louis Park. "You hang up the phone and 10 minutes later the price is 20 cents a pound higher. People are really scrambling."

But Lauer of Coastal Seafood said the past week has brought price stability for his only Gulf product, Texas brown shrimp. He also noted that the market was due for a correction.

"Starting two years ago we saw the lowest prices in history [relative to inflation]. Those were unsustainable," Lauer said. "Now there's a feeling of 'Let's make up some of what we have lost over the last two years.' It wasn't at a real price then, and this might not be a real price, either."

There has been little customer pushback and fewer inquiries than expected.

"We're literally getting only a few questions a week," said Bob Carlson, owner of Stella's Fish Cafe in Minneapolis. "I don't know if consumers are assuming we're doing what we can to protect them, but I'm truly, truly shocked by how little we're hearing."

Kimmes of Oceanaire and Zinter of Sea Change also said they're hearing few customer inquiries, although Zinter said his wait staff, when describing a fish such as mackerel as "oily," had been getting a few wisecracks in the "Huh, it must be from the Gulf of Mexico" vein.

Having the phrase "Gulf shrimp" on the menu has prompted some customer queries at Minneapolis' Atlas Grill, said chef Abbass Shahbazi, who assures them that he makes sure all of the seafood he gets is safe.

And for at least one outlet, consumer confidence appears to be on the rise, even for picky customers at local co-ops. "It's been really hard to sell Gulf of Mexico shrimp. When [the spill] first happened, sales dropped off almost completely," said Christine Szczech, meat and fish manager for the Mississippi Market Co-Op in St. Paul. "People just are really skeptical, so they went with farm-raised from other countries.

"But it is picking back up. Last weekend, we didn't have to throw away any Gulf shrimp for the first time."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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