May 19, 2010 in Business

Northwest oyster farmers eye sea change

Demand for shellfish may shift to Puget Sound following spill
Rolf Boone Olympian
 
Joe Barrentine (Tacoma) News Tribune photo

(Tacoma) News Tribune Maria Ponce, right, and Dan Underwood sort and clean oysters at the Taylor Shelfish Farms facility in Shelton, Wash., last week.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

The oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico could turn into a boon for Puget Sound shellfish companies.

Inquiries about Puget Sound oyster supplies have started to come in from the southeastern United States, a result of the massive oil spill in the gulf, which is on the verge of becoming the worst in U.S. history.

Representatives of Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, Coast Seafoods in South Bend and National Fish & Oyster Co. of Olympia say it is too early to tell how the oil spill will affect Puget Sound oyster growers, but if the spill widens, the increase in business volume and prices could be similar to that experienced after hurricanes Rita and Katrina. In some cases, oyster prices rose $4 to $5 a gallon after Katrina.

Taylor Shellfish has received phone calls from oyster bars and food distributors in Florida, Arkansas, Virginia and Georgia, including an Atlanta-based distributor who recently “ordered a lot more oysters for his restaurants,” said Jeff Pearson, who works in sales and marketing for Taylor.

Pearson estimated there are 32 oyster-growing areas in the gulf, and that 11 of them have been closed as a precaution but not necessarily because they have been damaged by oil. He expects gulf oyster growers to shift to the areas that still are open and harvest as much as they can before the problem becomes worse.

The other factor possibly tempering demand for Puget Sound oysters is the nature of the oyster itself, Pearson said. Gulf coast restaurants and their customers are accustomed to an oyster called the Virginica oyster, which is much smaller than the Pacific oyster grown here and one that has a smaller meat yield, he said. Many gulf coast restaurants expect the Virginica at their dining tables, so it’s not an automatic transition to the Pacific oyster, Pearson said.

The gulf coast oyster is raised naturally without the aid of hatcheries, and if those oyster beds become damaged it could take a while before they “naturally” repair themselves, Pearson said.

“That part could certainly be devastating for a few years,” he said.

Puget Sound growers who also operate their hatcheries may find advantage in being able to control cultivation, he said.

Taylor operates hatcheries in Puget Sound and Hawaii and has been in growth mode.

“We are growing more oysters and single oysters,” Pearson said.

Coast Seafoods’ South Bend plant manager Darrell Moudry acknowledged that the company has “seen a little action, but it’s pretty limited at this time,” he said. Some of that action includes a “pre-emptive” order from an undisclosed company in the gulf for 800 to 1,000 gallons of oysters, or about 110,000 oysters, he said. He said Coast has been growing faster the past couple of years, too. At the same time the company has to be careful about overselling and hurting its existing customers.

“You’re on a rotation and you plant accordingly,” Moudry said about the timing of raising oysters.

Mathew Bulldis, a shareholder in National Fish & Oyster, said he has received an inquiry from a Texas-based food distributor, but hasn’t seen any real shortage in supply.

“I’m hopeful for our sake that there will be something,” Bulldis said.


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