A worker shows off shrimp fresh from the Gulf of Mexico at a seafood retailer in Port Sulfur, La.
A worker shows off shrimp fresh from the Gulf of Mexico at a seafood retailer in Port Sulfur, La. - 
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When I was growing up and we went out to eat, there was one sure sign it was a fancy place: Shrimp cocktail, in the silver dish with the shaved ice and the sauce and the lemon. And then shrimp farming took off, and shrimp moved from pricey delicacy to America's favorite seafood. We're up to four pounds a year per person now. Or we have been.

By Gregory Warner

At lunchtime today, at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Diane Mercer was hoping to buy a half pound of cocktail shrimp, the large ones.

"And I just noticed they're 16.99 a pound," Mercer said.

A dollar higher than just two weeks ago.

"And that's what it's about. The price," she said.

When asked what her shrimp alternatives were, she replied with a laugh, "No shrimp!"

Shrimp prices were climbing even before the spill. Last year, disease and bad weather hurt shrimp farms in Asia. But now, it's the domestic shrimp in short supply. Wholesale prices are up more than 40 percent. The oil spill has shut down a third of fisheries in the Gulf.

"The remaining two-thirds is not yet closed, but possibly could be closed," said Gil Sylvia, a marine resource economist at Oregon State University.

"So if you're a retailer, you're trying to build up your inventories now," he said.

Big restaurant chains like Red Lobster have locked in contracts with shrimp suppliers for the next 12 months, longer than usual, further driving up prices.

Now, as for your shrimp cocktail, you can still have it. You might pay a bit more for it, but most of that shrimp comes from shrimp farms overseas. The Gulf only supplies an eighth of the shrimp we eat in this country, but it supplies three-quarters of wild-caught shrimp.

Glen Libby has been shrimping for 35 years in a much tinier wild shrimp industry in Port Clyde, Maine, where shrimp season starts in winter.

"If we could get a significant jump in price, we could probably get things back on an even keel, and maybe even save some money," Libby said.

Though he hates to benefit off another fisherman's disaster, he says his community could use a boost.

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Follow Gregory Warner at @radiogrego