MEDFORD — If shrimp connoisseurs haven't already noticed, they soon will feel the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, with either emptier wallets or emptier stomachs.
"You're going to see the plate costs go up or get less shrimp on the plate," said Barry Fronek, a Medford seafood broker. "You started seeing it about four weeks ago and the price has just continued to go up every week."
The oil flow has put the Gulf Coast shrimp industry out of business for the foreseeable future, forcing brokers and wholesalers to look elsewhere.
The U.S. placed a regulatory moratorium on imported Mexican shrimp in February, making wild shrimp virtually unavailable until at least the fall. That leaves farm-produced shrimp from Brazil, Ecuador, Bangladesh, India and Vietnam as the primary options.
"Obviously, it's a disaster for the shrimp and tuna industries down there," said Fronek, whose family began distributing seafood from Louisiana 30 years ago. "Fortunately, 98 percent of all shrimp is imported so it's not going to be a major blow to the supply."
Fronek deals with a pair of wild shrimp producers in the Gulf region. Although they were a small part of his network, he's now relying on shipments from Ecuador and Bangladesh.
"The gulf area will be dead for five-plus years," he said.
Mexican shrimp is harvested in a fashion that doesn't comply with U.S. turtle protection regulations. As a result, the shrimp aren't allowed into the U.S.
"You typically dredge for shrimp," Fronek said. "If you don't have the right release mechanisms (for turtles) you are not allowed to ship the product into the U.S. As a result, Mexican shrimp is off limits. It's Murphy's law with everything happening all at once."
The typical No. 1 size shrimp — 16 to 20 shrimp per pound — consumed at restaurants were selling at wholesale for about $4.90 on the eve of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion April 20 that triggered the flow.
"It's close to $6.70 right now at wholesale and will probably cap around $7.50," he said. "I think that will hold through the Christmas. Our economy is the thing that might hold the prices back a little from where it should go. Europe and Japan are still buying really strong. You hear about Europe falling apart (economically) and they are consuming as much seafood as the U.S."
Importers have ramped up orders of black tiger shrimp from Bangladesh and vaname shrimp from Ecuador. Both are farm-raised with ocean water pumped in and circulated into ponds. "The difference is wild versus farm-raised," Fronek said. "Frankly, I can't taste the difference."
The gulf shrimp harvest would have been underway now, but the oil invasion changed everything.
"They (shrimpers) typically go in after the shrimp spawn," Fronek said. "But when the oil thing hit they allowed them to grab whatever they could for that week. Even if the embargo on Mexico shrimp is taken care of, the earliest we would see wild shrimp is September. There's an 18-month cycle so there is no way to fill the void quick enough."
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.