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Top Story: After Sandy

Ripple effect of storm damage spreads impact far through the seafood supply chain

By Steve Coomes
February 01, 2013

Parsons Seafood wasn’t built in a day, but Superstorm Sandy nearly destroyed the century-old shellfish farming and wholesaler in less than 24 hours. With its relentless one-two, water-and-wind punches, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record pummeled the New Jersey shore at Tuckerton on Oct. 29, leveling the business’s oyster hatchery and sending a surge of sea water 4 feet high into its wholesale storefront.

“We lost about 15 to 20 percent of our field-grow operations, but it didn’t take everything,” says Dale Parsons, who oversees the family’s now-battered $4 million aquaculture business. “A hatchery is like a musical instrument that anyone can put together to make it work, but fine tuning it for the right result takes a long time. We’ll lose at least a year getting it back.”

Like many shellfish operations on the Jersey shore, Parsons’ harvesting is at a standstill — not as a result of infrastructure damage, but because of contaminants found in Tuckerton Bay’s waters by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors. As of late December, that technical knockout had Parsons and his crews working without pay since Sandy blew ashore.

“Right now it’s been eight weeks without a paycheck for me, and none of us around here has gotten any unemployment yet,” says Parsons. “[FDA officials don’t] even know what it is that’s in the water, but until that’s gone, we can’t harvest. And we have no idea when we can start again.”

Parsons’ story is similar to other Northeastern U.S. shellfish beds damaged by what meteorologists have dubbed “the real perfect storm.” After becoming a hurricane on Oct. 22, it churned northward through the Caribbean, lashing Jamaica and Cuba with flooding rains and 110 mph winds. Despite hurricane warnings for nearly the entire U.S. East Coast, it stayed far enough from shore that damage to North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware was minimal.

“I don’t want to jinx myself, but we dodged a bullet on that one,” says Mike Hutt, executive director of the Virginia Marine Products Board. “High tide was getting ready to surge here, but a cool front and the wind that came with it shoved it out some.”

The same happened in Maryland, where minor damage to fishing and wholesaling operations was reported.

“We heard some oyster guys say their oysters got buried a little bit, and the crabbers lost a week of harvest because you couldn’t fish,” says Steve Vilnit, fisheries marketing director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Without crab landings, processors missed a few days of work as well. “All I can say is we were fortunate that it hit north of us. If the storm had been a little south — where the water would have been pushed toward the shore — we’d have had a much different outcome.”

Farther north, on the opposite side of the storm in New Bedford, Mass., the operators of OceansFleet Fisheries sent their boats out to safer seas well ahead of the storm.

“We knew so far in advance that everyone took that advice and moved the boats out of the way,” says Chuck Violisi, who manages the firm’s scallop harvesting operation. “It was not as bad as I thought it would be, and those who did have some damage didn’t make a big deal about it.”

As the storm continued north into unseasonably mild waters, its wind field expanded to a record-breaking 1,100 miles across. As forecasters predicted, Sandy then turned sharply westward toward New Jersey, where shore operations “were waiting like sitting ducks,” Parsons says. “We didn’t have the luxury of the fleet to move the business out of harm’s way.”

As others had reported, Joanne Pellegrino, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) port agent in Toms River, N.J., says “the docks in my area are a mess from the flooding and the high surge.”

In the days following the storm, boats hoping to offload catches in New Jersey struggled to find serviceable docks in the towns of Belford and Barnegat Light. Equally bad, roads coming into those towns were impassable to industry workers trying to drive to work.

“For about the first three weeks after the storm, the product that was landed there … nobody could get to it,” says Pellegrino. Natural gas lines servicing barrier islands were compromised, leading police to block roads, “and sand covered lots of roads. The police also didn’t want to let many people in because of looting. So people really couldn’t even get to work if they wanted to.”

The situation was similarly frustrating on Long Island, N.Y., where NOAA port agent Vic Vecchio reported significant coastal erosion.

“There was quite a bit of flooding, too, which left homes and businesses near our end without power for as much as two weeks,” says Vecchio, who’s based in East Hampton. Further west toward New York City, fishing boats avoided the storm, but he says, “shoreside businesses took a beating whether it was a result of the storm or no power to get themselves running again. That’s when the fishermen started to have trouble because the port of New York City shut down, which meant fuel deliveries were halted for two days.”

The same fuel shortage crippled processors and wholesalers who, despite being prepared with backup generators, couldn’t get gasoline to keep them running.

“No electricity meant no ice making and a lot of product loss,” says Vecchio, adding that some time will pass before total losses are reported. “There’s a lot of data still being recorded before they make that report.”

That data will come from an impact study launched by NOAA about two weeks after the storm. According to Rita Curtis, a division chief for the agency’s economic and social scientist program, surveyors traveled to hardest hit areas to assess damage and losses suffered by seafood businesses. As of late December, field work was being completed, and Curtis hoped survey results would be tallied by late January. Initial overall storm damage estimates from the states of New York and New Jersey are pegged at more than $60 billion. 

While many on her team also surveyed damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, she says many were “numbed by the destruction they saw” in this storm. Most startling, she adds, is the realization of how many businesses that never even experienced a wind gust were affected by Sandy.

“You realize quickly how interlinked all these businesses are,” Curtis says. “Even if your business is fine, someone else in the chain was out of business and couldn’t get your product to you.

“Fishermen were still bringing in good catches, but they had to offload it somewhere different than they normally would. That’s very costly to these businesses.”

Unable to get normal supplies of East Coast fish to his Columbus, Ohio, facility, seafood distributor Frank Gonzales spent about the first two weeks of November explaining available options to his restaurant and supermarket customers.

“It was just a mess for about 12 days when we couldn’t get the fresh fish we needed,” says Gonzales, owner of Columbus Fish & Seafood and a pair of Frank’s Fish and Seafood Markets elsewhere in the state. “The options were limited: Bring it fresh out of Florida, if it was available, or frozen from other places.”

Unwilling to compromise, Gonzales says some white-tablecloth restaurants chose to tell guests they were out of some fish.

“They couldn’t afford the freight of having it shipped from further away, and they weren’t going to serve refreshed product,” he says. “The storm overall hurt a lot of people, even people not in the seafood business.”

When the owners of Sea to Table learned many fishermen weren’t able to move their catch through broken distribution chains, the hybrid packer and liaison firm, which connects independent fishermen and chefs, asked its restaurant partners to purchase seafood not typically on their menus. The effort meant catches weren’t wasted or sent to freezers and netted welcome sales for desperate fishermen.

“Restaurants across the country knew what was going on and wanted to support the East Coast docks,” says Sean Dimin, founder of Sea to Table. “We had a lot of chefs across the country asking for fish from communities impacted by Sandy.”

Dimin says the effort helped stabilize prices, which plummeted in areas of the Northeast where there were supply gluts, and where shortages arose, and that most everything is back to normal. “Our sources are telling us most everything’s back up and running,” he says.

Since Lonnie Zoeller, executive chef at Vinoteca in Washington, D.C., purchases only East Coast seafood, he was concerned he might face supply shortages. Yet a call from Dimin told him there was plenty of fish available if he was flexible in his choices.

“When they said these guys were having a hard time, we made sure to get fish from their area to try and help,” Zoeller says. Not only did Zoeller not suffer any fish shortages, the prices he paid for hake and mussels from the Northeast “were the same price you usually see. Still, we charged an extra dollar here at the restaurant for those fish to try and raise a little extra money for those guys and let customers help.”

The U.S. government is pitching in, too, announcing in early January that legislators committed $9.7 billion in aid to help areas damaged by the storm. That’s in addition to $2 billion spent in the days immediately after the event.

Harlon Pearce knows all too well the struggles Northeast fishermen are facing post-Sandy. His fishing business, Harlon’s LA Fish in Kenner, La., endured and recovered from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, only to be nearly shut down again by the Deepwater Horizon oil well explosion in 2010.

Cleanup and reconstruction are difficult enough, he says, but other challenges, such as regaining one’s place in the supply chain or convincing customers your catches are fit for consumption, take incredible diligence and long-term persistence to overcome.

“If there was only one piece of advice I’d give, it’s communicate, communicate, communicate with the federal boys, the state boys, chefs — and anyone in the industry who will listen — that you’re open for business,” says Pearce. “You’ve got to keep people informed, especially people like the [Environmental Protection Agency], FDA and NOAA about the quality of your seafood. Have all your data ready and out in the open for them.”

Knowing that recovering from a catastrophe the size of Superstorm Sandy will require federal recovery assistance, Pearce recommends Northeastern operations address their congressmen and senators consistently and professionally to inform them of actual damage and what’s required to repair it.

“You must do a detailed assessment of the status of industry,” Pearce begins. “Show not only how much infrastructure is really damaged, but be sure to ask about fishermen’s homes.
To make sure you get the federal funding you need, you’ve got to give your legislators numbers that are real and detailed.”

Pearce also recommends a PR campaign that keeps the restoration process in the press. What’s talked about gets attention from Washington, he says, not to mention aid from industry brethren. Pearce is also chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Marketing & Promotion Board, which conducted tours for people to see the damage and recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina. 

“We were lucky to have our board lead that, but the truth is you’ve got to pick it up and run with it and help,” says Pearce. “Don’t wait. Do as quickly as you can what you can.”

Contributing Editor Steve Coomes lives in Louisville, Ky.

 

Find other SeaFood Business articles on Superstorm Sandy click here. For articles on hurricane recovery, click here.

February 2013 - SeaFood Business    

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