Gulf oil spill affecting local seafood business

by Sherry Hamilton - Posted on Jul 14, 2010 - 04:52 PM

BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is having a devastating effect on an oyster shucking house in Mathews.

Photo: Ron Sopko, owner of Sea Farms, Inc. at Cricket Hill, says his oyster shucking business is suffering because of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He has applied for relief from the company. Photo by Sherry Hamilton.

Ron Sopko, owner of Sea Farms, Inc. at Cricket Hill, says his oyster shucking business is suffering because of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He has applied for relief from the company. Photo by Sherry Hamilton.

Ron Sopko, owner of Sea Farms Inc., said his shucking business recently dropped in volume from the usual six tractor-trailer loads a week that he buys to just one-and-a-half tractor-trailer loads over the past two weeks. "That’s all that was available," he said.

Even though some of the oyster leases in the Louisiana part of the gulf are still open, said Sopko, many of the watermen who would normally be oystering there are now working for BP in the cleanup effort.

"They might get blown in if they’re oystering," he said, "but they go to BP and there’s a check waiting for them."

This might seem like a good chance for the reviving Virginia oyster industry to step in and increase its business, but Sopko said there aren’t enough oysters yet in the Chesapeake Bay to take up the slack.

Even if there were, he said, "the guys can only work ’til 10 a.m., so there’s no time for them to catch anything." Furthermore, even if there were plenty of oysters and adequate time to catch them, there aren’t enough watermen left to fill the need for a shucking house. Finally, said Sopko, while he does a little aquaculture on the side, he can’t produce the volume needed for his business.

Usually when oysters are scarce, Sopko said he buys fish, but this year is the worst year for catching fish he’s seen in over a decade.

"It’s almost to the level it was when the croakers disappeared," he said. "Sales are probably half of what they were last year … When you’re in the business, you do a little on fish, a little on oysters, and you try to hit a home run on one. This year, there’s nothing."

Other seafood dealers have been letting their employees go, said Sopko, but so far he’s been able to hang on to his regular employees because he’s more diversified. However, he hasn’t brought in any extra H2B Visa employees yet this year and doesn’t know if he will.

Last year, he had 30 H2B employees, four of whom he kept over this year under an extension of their old visas. His men shucked last Monday, but spent the rest of the week cutting fish or painting the building.

"These guys are here to work," he said. "They’re not happy if they aren’t."

The lack of oysters is affecting other businesses besides shucking houses, said Sopko. He said he hasn’t ordered many boxes or gallon containers, so his suppliers are losing money, and the trucking company that hauls the oysters is down $10,000 a month in freight.

"In a soft economy like this," he said, "it only takes one big thing to put you over the edge."

Sopko has applied to BP for funds to help his business over the rough time, but it will be a while before he hears anything. Meanwhile, for next week, he said, "It looks like there’s nothing coming in."