Oil in the Gulf, higher prices on your plate

Effects of BP spill stretching to Las Vegas restaurants

The BP oil spill has reached far beyond the immediate Gulf region, trickling into the Las Vegas seafood scene—and even our seafood vocabulary. This month, Mark Smolen changed the name of his restaurant from Cajun Crawfish to Crawdaddy’s Crab House, skittering away from the growing stigma surrounding the Gulf’s mudbugs.

Credit: Anthony MairSmolen with soon-to-be-pricier crawfish.

“We’re actually scared,” says Smolen, who owns the restaurant as well as Nevada Seafood Wholesalers with his brother, John. “We’re trying to encompass other aspects of the business besides crawfish.” Crawfish, oysters, blue crab, shrimp—those are Smolen’s specialties and have been for the past 10 years. He has thousands of pounds of seafood flown in from the Gulf region daily, which he sells to restaurants and stores around Las Vegas.

Seafood has always been Smolen’s passion, but since late last month he’s spent more time talking about oil with his fishermen than fish.

“There’s not much we can really do about it right now. About 75 percent of the fisheries are shut down where I get my seafood,” he says. “A lot of the fishermen are actually working to clean up the oil as opposed to working on fishing.”

Since May 2, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has closed more than 30 percent of federal waters bordering Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to commercial and recreational fishing. The full impact is still yet to be felt on the industry, which harvested more than 1 billion pounds of fish and shellfish in 2008.

The immediate impact has been on shrimp prices, Smolen says, which have risen between 25 and 35 percent. That’s because fishermen who used to get shrimp 50 to 75 miles offshore now have to travel 100 to 200 miles due to the closures. The fuel charges are being passed on to the buyer, and Smolen says many high-end restaurants in Las Vegas that used to purchase shrimp from him have started taking it off their menus. He knows that this is just the beginning, with probable increases in crawfish prices also coming.

“I don’t think anybody can predict what’s going to happen in the future,” Smolen says. “We can’t even figure out how many gallons of oil are coming out of that pipe every day.” But while Smolen and other wholesalers and retailers who rely on Gulf seafood are anxious about the extent of the impact on their businesses, many high-end seafood restaurateurs have long avoided using seafood from that region for years, opting instead for sustainable fare. Rick Moonen of RM Seafood is one of those chefs.

“I haven’t been buying from the Gulf. I couldn’t buy from the Gulf because I’ve been paying attention, and the Gulf has been dying faster than you want to admit it,” he says.

Moonen actually sees a silver lining to the oil spill. He says that this will give the ocean a chance to rest and regenerate, and in time, it will triumph. For now, he says, this is a wake-up call for people to realize just how at risk the environment is every day.

“The discussion, in our lifetime, has never been this deep on anything,” Moonen says. “It’s pulling everyone together. It’s going to motivate a better mentality between ourselves, mankind and our environment. That’s what I feel.”

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