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Gulf oil spill may boost Washington state shellfish producers

The oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico could turn into a boon for Puget Sound shellfish companies.

Inquiries about Puget Sound oyster supplies have started to come in from the southeastern United States, a result of the massive oil spill in the gulf, which is on the verge of becoming the worst in U.S. history.

Representatives of Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, Coast Seafoods in South Bend and National Fish & Oyster Co. of Olympia say it is too early to tell how the oil spill will affect Puget Sound oyster growers, but if the spill widens, the increase in business volume and prices could be similar to that experienced after hurricanes Rita and Katrina. In some cases, oysters rose $4 to $5 a gallon after Katrina.

Taylor Shellfish has received phone calls from oyster bars and food distributors in Florida, Arkansas, Virginia and Georgia, including an Atlanta-based distributor who recently "ordered a lot more oysters for his restaurants," said Jeff Pearson, who works in sales and marketing for Taylor. Pearson estimated there are 32 oyster-growing areas in the gulf, and that 11 of them have been closed as a precaution but not necessarily because they have been damaged by oil. He expects gulf oyster growers to shift to the areas that still are open and harvest as much as they can before the problem becomes worse.

The other factor possibly tempering demand for Puget Sound oysters is the nature of the oyster itself, Pearson said. Gulf coast restaurants and their customers are accustomed to an oyster called the Virginica oyster, which is much smaller than the Pacific oyster grown here and one that has a smaller meat yield, he said. Many gulf coast restaurants expect the Virginica at their dining tables, so it's not an automatic transition to the Pacific oyster, Pearson said.

The gulf coast oyster is raised naturally without the aid of hatcheries, and if those oyster beds become damaged it could take a while before they "naturally" repair themselves, Pearson said.

"That part could certainly be devastating for a few years," he said.

Puget Sound growers who also operate their hatcheries may find advantage in being able to control cultivation, he said.

Taylor operates hatcheries in Puget Sound and Hawaii and has been in growth mode.

"We are growing more oysters and single oysters," Pearson said.

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