A well-oiled disaster

Published 5:23 pm Friday, April 30, 2010

Recent satellite images of the Gulf of Mexico depict a monstrous black mass inching its way closer to the American coast.

Although most Shelby County residents are watching from a safe distance as the destroyed Deepwater Horizon oil rig spews thousands of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf, a handful of locals are experiencing collective loss of breath.

Because the projected millions of gallons of oil released into the Gulf by the deepwater well is threatening to destroy marine ecosystems off America’s Southern coast, Shelby County’s seafood restaurant owners could soon be facing financial deep water.

“This is my livelihood. This is my only restaurant. I don’t have another job,” said Robert Regard, owner of Crazy Cajuns near the intersection of U.S. 280 and Valleydale Road. “Am I nervous? Yes. I couldn’t sleep last night.”

Regard’s restaurant, along with other local seafood eateries like Chuck’s Fish off U.S. 280, get most of their menu items from Gulf suppliers.

Because the oil spill could wreak havoc on marine life in the South, supply lines for items like shrimp, fish and oysters could quickly dry up.

“If all the oil washes up on the beaches, that’s easy because you can just scoop it up,” said Regard, who purchases all of his seafood from Jubilee Seafood in Bayou La Batre. “Once it gets into the estuaries, you can’t just scoop that out. That’s when you start losing a lot of shrimp.

“This is a lot different from a hurricane. With a hurricane, you rebuild and keep fishing,” Regard added. “But if something kills everything, there’s nothing left to catch.”

Chuck’s Fish, which also has a restaurant in Tuscaloosa, owns its own fishing fleet, which does most of its fishing off the Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana coasts.

“Honestly, I’m not sure quite yet how the oil spill is going to affect us,” said Chuck’s Fish Birmingham Manager Nick Watkins. “We haven’t heard anything from our fish market yet.

“I think it’s a little too early for them to tell exactly how it’s going to impact them,” Watkins added. “Personally, I really wish I did have a better idea of what it’s going to do to our suppliers.”

The oil spill could have a long-term effect on the Gulf Coast fishing and shrimping industry, and may drive seafood prices up throughout Alabama, Regard said.

“I heard that they have released figures that say even if the leak stops today, it will impact our (seafood) supply for the next 10 years,” Regard said. “We could be paying two times or even three times more for seafood in the future than we are now.”

If the oil spill affects Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana, local seafood restaurants may have to begin purchasing freshwater marine life and seafood from the Texas coast.

“If it hits from Louisiana and Mississippi eastward, we can still get our seafood from the Texas coast,” Regard said. “That will put a lot of demand on that supply.

“If you raise freshwater prawn, you are sitting golden right now. But the age of $5-per-pound beautiful shrimp is over,” Regard added. “We are a seafood restaurant, and it’s scary to think this could be over.”