Gulf Oyster Supply Dwindling, Impact On Prices

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ATLANTA — Atlanta seafood wholesaler Inland Seafood is seeing a price hike of up to 30% in the price of Gulf oysters. Louisiana state officials closed two more oyster beds over the weekend, as a precaution to guard against possible contamination from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. Inland Seafood CEO Joel Knox says prices are rising and that Gulf oysters may soon be impossible to get.

Knox says oysters from Virginia are likely to be the best alternative. The bivalves carry a saltier taste, and a bit higher price than Gulf oysters.

Fontaine's Oyster Bar in Virginia Highland is holding the line on prices for now. General Manager Bobby Arnold says the bar may have to slightly raise prices on its traditional half-price special on gulf oysters. Fontaine's has offered the deal on Tuesdays for nine years, said Arnold.

Shrimp prices are also rising, but Knox says the price hikes are not related to the oil disaster. Knox says shrimp prices have been unusually depressed due to the recession, and are now rebounding with the economic recovery.

Meanwhile, a wind shift could start to push more oil from BP's Deepwater Horizon gusher into the Mississippi Delta and areas west of the river, which is "bad news for Louisiana," Gov. Bobby Jindal said Monday afternoon.

Louisiana has been mostly spared since the oil rig exploded April 20 and sank two days later about 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the southeast coast of Louisiana. The oil well blowout is sending 210,000 gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico each day. Most of the slick has been centered in an area east of the environmentally sensitive delta.

"We've said all along that the oil coming west of the river would pose a whole new set of challenges," Jindal said.

Jindal detailed efforts to place booms and other restraining devices into four passes near Grand Isle to prevent the oil from reaching land.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters had warned over the weekend that the Mississippi Delta, Breton Sound, Chandeleur Islands and areas directly north could see oil hit the coast by Tuesday.

To the east of the river, scientists were analyzing tar balls found on a beach on Dauphin Island, Alabama, to determine whether they were caused by the oil spill, United States Coast Guard spokesman Erik Swanson said.

The tar balls are "pieces of emulsified oil" shaped like pancakes, ranging in size from dimes to golf balls, but can sometimes occur naturally, Swanson said.

Fewer than a dozen oil-smeared birds have been taken to a Louisiana rehabilitation center, and two were released Monday, said Mark Musaus, deputy director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The stakes are high for residents of coastal Louisiana who make their living from fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil washed ashore Thursday on Louisiana's barrier islands and drifted west past the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The government has closed parts of the Gulf to fishing. The affected area, which is east of the Mississippi Delta, makes up about 4.5 percent of the Gulf of Mexico, NOAA said.

"It's killing everybody down here. Everybody is more or less getting ulcers worrying about this, and it's something we experienced five years ago with [Hurricane] Katrina," charter boat owner Tom Becker said Saturday.

Hundreds of thousands of feet of boom and large volumes of dispersants continued to be deployed in an effort to capture or break up the spilled oil moving toward the Gulf coastline. Thousands of workers and volunteers also have been skimming the water's surface to retrieve surface oil, which is pumped to a container vessel.

A BP executive said Monday that the energy company is working "parallel paths" to fix the oil well blowout.

The failure over the weekend of a four-story dome to cap the leak has led BP to move on to other options, including the use of a smaller chamber over the leak and shooting garbage into the gaping hole to try to plug the gusher, said Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer for exploration and production.

The company also is considering placing a valve or a new blowout preventer on top of the existing one, which is not fully functioning, Suttles told CNN's "American Morning" program. As the name suggests, a blowout preventer is a device that is supposed to clamp shut over a leaking wellhead.

David Nagel, executive vice president of BP America, said the blowout preventer may be working better than some people believe, limiting the gusher to 5,000 barrels of oil a day.

"We have a blowout preventer that we think is mostly shut," Nagel said Monday in Washington, adding that the situation seemed to be stable.

He said remote-control inspection machines have not been able to check how the blowout assembly is working, but "something is constraining the leak" from what would have been an estimated flow of between 40,000 to 60,000 barrels a day.

Suttles said BP is drilling a relief well to try to divert the flow to another pipe.

"What we're going to do is keep developing options until we get this flow stopped," Suttles said.

On Friday, BP lowered the massive containment vessel over the well to cap the larger of two leak points. But that plan was thwarted Saturday after ice-like hydrate crystals formed when gas combined with water blocked the top of the dome and made it buoyant.

BP has built the smaller dome, and it is already available, Suttles said Monday. That device would keep most of the water out at the beginning of the capping process and would allow engineers to pump in methanol to keep the hydrates from forming, Suttles said.

Methanol is a simple alcohol that can be used as an antifreeze.

Use of the smaller dome should occur around midweek, said BP spokesman Mark Proegler.

The process of stopping the gusher with garbage is called a "junk shot." Under that procedure, debris such as shredded up tires, golf balls and similar objects would be shot under extremely high pressure into the blowout preventer in an attempt to clog it and stop the leak.

That procedure would be done late next week, Suttles said Monday.

Work also has begun on the relief well, he said.

"That started about a week ago," Suttles said. "That work continues. The well is at about 9,000 feet. About 5,000 feet of that is the water depth. Then the rest is drilling below the sea floor. We're slightly ahead of plan here. These are complex tasks, but we're making very good process."

It may take up to three months to reach the target area, Nagel said. And progress will slow the deeper the drill bit goes, he said.

"The rock gets harder, and every time you have to replace a worn-out drill bit, it takes more time to withdraw and stack the drill pipe" in 90-foot sections on the construction vessel to change the bit, re-assemble the sections and lower the drill pipe back into action, said Nagel.

Federal investigators are still trying to determine what caused the explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon, which was owned by BP contractor Transocean Ltd.

BP is legally required to cover economic damages from the spill up to $75 million. But Florida Sen. Bill Nelson has introduced legislation that would raise the liability cap to $10 billion.

"If this gusher continues for several months, it's going to cover up the Gulf Coast, and it's going to get down into the loop current. And that's going to take it down the Florida Keys and up the east coast of Florida, and you are talking about massive economic loss to our tourism, our beaches, to our fisheries, very possibly disruption of our military testing and training," Nelson said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."

BP has received 3,400 claims for lost income and damages; 295 of those have been paid, at a price tag of $3.5 million, Nagel said.

"It's a host of things," he said. "The immediate loss of income is being handled very quickly."

None of the payouts are for liability, but Nagel stressed "the interim plans are in no way meant to be final."

Also Monday, organizers announced a a Gulf Aid benefit concert for south Louisiana fishermen and wetlands restoration.

The rain-or-shine concert, to be held Sunday, is slated to feature Lenny Kravitz, Allen Toussaint, Mos Def and the Voice of the Wetlands Allstars featuring Dr. John, Cyril Neville and Tab Benoit.