Reporting from Louisiana and Los Angeles — — The sky was still black over the Gulf of Mexico as fisherman Jeff Howard steered his battered flat-bottom boat from one crab trap to another, frantic to snap up a few more crustaceans before the oil came.
He had little time to waste. Stiff winds, rough waters and almost empty traps wouldn't keep him docked. Anything, he figured, was better than nothing.
FOR THE RECORD:
Seafood crop: A graphic that appeared in Saturday's Section A said that most of the oysters and half the shrimp caught in U.S. waters in 2008 came from the Gulf of Mexico. It should have said that half the total value of the U.S. oyster crop and most of the value of the shrimp crop were produced in the gulf. —
"Today might be the last day you can go," said Howard, 43. "You might not be able to go for another year. Who knows?"
As the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continued to spread Friday, Louisiana's $2.5-billion commercial fishing industry, which provides much of the country's domestic shrimp and oysters, is bracing for a virtual shutdown that could trigger shortages and price hikes for consumers nationwide.
As an armada of fishing vessels was dodging the oil-covered waters, seafood distributors, restaurants and grocery stores across the nation were on edge as well.
In Southern California, supermarket chains such as Albertsons and Ralphs said they were closely monitoring the situation and were concerned about how serious the problem might become. A spokeswoman for Whole Foods Market said it was prepared to find alternatives — just in case.
Edward Phillips, who works at fish supplier International Marine Products in downtown Los Angeles, said he and co-workers were closely monitoring news reports about the oil spill.
"If it does get worse, then it's going to contaminate a lot of the fish that we're getting and selling," he said.
Though food analyst Phil Lempert said it was too soon to tell what the disaster would mean for consumers shopping at the grocery store or dining out, he predicted that prices could jump 10% or more if supply diminished.
"Any time you have anything this large for this length of time, just the ordinary shipping and everything else gets disrupted," said Lempert, editor of Supermarketguru.com.
Though the majority of the seafood consumed in this country is imported, the Gulf region accounts for about one-fifth of the total U.S. commercial production and more than three-quarters of its domestic shrimp output, according to state and federal officials.
In 2008, commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico harvested nearly 1.3 billion pounds of finfish and shellfish, out of the total 8.3 billion pounds total in the U.S., according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report.
The crisis has grown since the oil rig Deepwater Horizon sank, days after it exploded and caught fire. It could take 90 days to drill a relief well to stem the flow, and the amount of oil spilled may reach as high as 18.9 million gallons, more than the amount leaked from Exxon Valdez in Alaska's Prince William Sound.
In a place where fishing is equal parts big business and family tradition — where 1 out of every 17 jobs are in the industry — everything felt uncomfortably similar to Hurricane Katrina.
"This is like Katrina, with the phones ringing and people being so scared," said Mike Voisin, head of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force and former chair of the National Fisheries Institute. "A lot of the seafood are in their reproductive cycle right now. If this isn't controlled, we could lose a year's worth of crop in this."
And, Voisin added, "we still haven't come back completely from Katrina."
The 2005 hurricane hammered out the heart of the seafood industry and destroyed fish processing plants and marine repair centers. It took 85-foot fishing boats and tossed them ashore, depositing some in deep marshes or thick pine forests. Domestic supplies of Gulf crabs, shrimp, oysters, crawfish and fish quickly disappeared. Only about 60% of the jobs and people returned, Voisin said.
As the years passed, hurricanes Gustav and Ike battered the Gulf Coast. So did rising fuel prices, which climbed past $4 a gallon in 2008. Shrimpers, faced with a flood of import competition, hoisted their nets high and docked their boats: It was simply too expensive for them to work.
For fishermen like Howard, who has pulled his livelihood from the Gulf's murky waters for nearly three decades, this latest disaster has left him feeling bereft. Rebuilding a sense of normality, here in the rural hamlet of Delacroix, La., seems almost impossible.
On Friday, as Howard motored his boat from one cantaloupe-sized trap buoy to another, he frowned as he recounted how Katrina and then a spike in gas prices had cut into his livelihood. This year's crab season had been subpar. Now the oil spill.
Even the fish he was using as bait were starting to smell faintly like a leaking car.
Howard's cellphone kept ringing. Everyone had the same question: You heard anything about the oil? His answer is always the same. No.
"What did we do that was so bad that we're being punished so much for?" he said.
At least one California customer is willing to wait for Howard's catch. At the Bayou Grille in Inglewood, owner Michael Smith wearily recalled having to do without Gulf oysters and crawfish for nearly three months after Katrina hit.
Now, he's bracing himself for another drought.
"Folks don't want Pacific oysters, they want Louisiana oysters or they won't have anything," Smith said. "Other restaurants will try to pass off Pacific oysters, and you have people with Southern roots who know the difference."