oil-spill related fish shortage just the beginningThe price of shrimp is up 50 cents a pound at Ruth's seafood stand in the Westwego fish market, just outside of New Orleans, La. And this could be just the beginning. Among my friends and fellow sustainable food nuts, there is a dark humor when it comes to seafood: we can't decide if we should eschew it entirely due to concerns of calamitous global overfishing, or get it while we can.

Estimates from environmentalists and fisheries experts range from 10 to 30 years before many large species of fish are gone entirely, leaving mostly inedible and tiny 'nuisance' species; and these estimates did not take into account an explosion in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, leaking an unknown and currently unstoppable quantity of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, wreaking havoc that is only beginning to affect prime breeding grounds for shrimp, oysters and crawfish.


Lots of factors contribute to the on-the-ground price fluctuations in New Orleans and other nearby cities as the oil begins to glop onto the marshlands of Louisiana. The state has been opening and closing shrimp and fishing seasons unpredictably, and the abrupt closing of shrimp season Sunday night meant some fishermen were left having invested in (ironically) fuel and ice for their boats, but without any legal way to catch shrimp. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday it was closing 19% of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing, a tripling in the restricted area. Some of the price fluctuations are simply from worried buyers who fear the local sources will be soon gone and who are stocking up on extra.

Cheap imports from Thailand and other Asian and South American countries, dead zones due to pesticide runoff from the American Heartland, and fast-disappearing Louisiana wetlands have already severely impacted the region's fishing industry (and Katrina surely didn't help). Of the 5.8 billion pounds of seafood the U.S. consumes each year, only about 5% comes from the Gulf of Mexico; most of the rest comes from international sources (80%) and Alaska (more than 10%). So even if Gulf fishing is destroyed altogether, it's likely fish prices won't rise significantly -- at least not due to pure economic theory.

What could send up prices is old-fashioned panic. It's likely that the oyster beds will be severely damaged by the oil catastrophe, and that shrimp season will be closed for a long, long time. Even the short-term closure has led to a 10% increase in prices as far away as California. Anything much more than this in the short term won't be due to true supply considerations; it will have to do with the sort of frenzy that makes Apple's stock rise when a new product is announced. A measure of economics and a lot more emotion.

Short term, however, isn't what most concerns me, and many of those concerned with sustainable food. And the oil is only a small part of the problem. If the global fishing industry doesn't slow down -- considerably -- and majorly change its practices, so that other species aren't caught and dumped along with the target species (80% of the catch in many fisheries either to meet quotas or because of bycatch), we won't be having the discussion about environmental disasters hurting fish prices -- there simply won't be any fish to sell.

The immediate impact of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting oil leak is concerning, but it is just a harbinger of things to come in seafood counters and fishmarkets everywhere, if the global fish industry and fish consumers behave as they have done in the past decades. The phantom taste of oil in your shrimp could be only the beginning.

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