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BP oil leak could hurt seafood demand

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Steve Chiotakis: BP said today the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill’s already cost them $350 million. That tally includes a containment dome the company tried to have placed over one of the leaks. But methane gas ice crystals formed in the exit tube and the contraption had to be moved. As the spill continues to move and enlarge, there is great danger to the region’s fishing industry. The Gulf supplies more than 20 percent of the nation’s seafood, and reporter Sabri Ben-Achour says the spill’s starting to have a ripple effect.

Sabri Ben-Achour: A thousand miles away from Louisiana at a wholesale fish market in Jessup, Md., an electric descaling sends fish scales flying through the air as workers go through a stack of red snapper. The cost of seafood is also soaring. Sean Martin is vice president of Martin Seafood:

Sean Martin: Already I’ve started to see prices increasing — shrimp prices, crab meat prices — and this is the time of year that the Gulf would be coming into its production season.

A few counters down is Tim Sughrue, vice president of Congressional Seafood Company. He says it’s partly supply and demand, and partly speculation by customers.

Tim Sughrue: A lot of ’em have made large purchases of certain items to bank against prices going up.

That, of course, has made prices go up. All this is great for people like Captain Bob Evans, who sells crabs and oysters by the dozen from his back yard near the Chesapeake Bay.

Captain Bob Evans: They have to come to us now, and it helps our economy a lot. During Katrina, our crab business doubled.

But Captain Bob is actually a little worried — if prices get too high, restaurants will just take some things off the menu. And seafood producers may have a bigger problem, says Doug Lipton, a seafood industry economist at the University of Maryland:

Doug Lipton: Where it gets a little more complicated is what happens to the demand for seafood products in general.

People can get jittery about their seafood.

Lipton: One thing that may happen is the markets for seafood products — even from areas not impacted by the spill, will see a tremendous decline in demand.

If that happens, he says, prices will go down, especially if things get really bad in the Gulf.

In Jessup, Md., I’m Sabri Ben-Achour for Marketplace.

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