Wednesday, June 30

GRAVY GULF EDITION: PERDIDO BAY SEAFOOD CO., PENSACOLA


A DISPATCH FROM ASHLEY HALL
TUESDAY, JUNE 29, 2010
Their last boats packed with fresh Gulf Seafood unloaded on June 1, exactly six weeks after the oil rig blew up.
“We filmed it,” said Joy Hatfield, one of the owners of Perdido Bay Seafood located in western Pensacola.
“We took a bunch of pictures. We were all sad because we knew that was probably it for a while,” said Teresa Fagan. Teresa is Joy’s granddaughter. She says she’s been working the family business “since I was in the womb, practically.”
Joy opened Perdido Bay Seafood with her husband and son in November of 1988. Since then, it’s been a thriving wholesale and retail seafood operation. Eight deep-sea boats, two of which they own, have fished only for them.
Teresa believes that what sets Perdido Bay apart is their boats. Their customers can see the fresh fish coming off the water. They can pick their own fish and have confidence in its provenance and freshness.
“We’re not like other places,” Teresa said. “Well, now we’re like other places. Now we get our fish from somebody else. Now we’re just like everybody else.”
“It’s ridiculous. It’s embarrassing.”
The deep-sea area they’ve always fished, the region that provided them with bountiful harvests of grouper, cobia, snapper, and triggerfish, was one of the first to be closed down by the federal government. “Area 11″, about 90 miles off the coast of Alabama and Mississippi, is basically at ground zero for the oil gusher.
Their boats could go around the closed areas to open ones east and southwest of here, but it would add two days to each end of the trip, making it financially unfeasible.
Instead one of the boat captains is working for BP, they say. “And all the rest sit. Waiting for the call that they can go to work [for BP],” Teresa said.
The retail store has some fish for sale, fish bought from suppliers west of here in Florida, and some oysters shipped 450 miles from Galveston Bay. But they selection is skimpy compared to normal.
The family also owned a thriving wholesale operation, selling frozen whole fish to brokers in Tennessee, Atlanta, New York and Canada. It was a multimillion dollar business, Teresa said, that supported the family through the winter when retail sales are slower. But because their boats aren’t operating the wholesale side is completely shuttered.
Like so many here, their future is a depressing mystery. How bad will it be? And while business is rotten, speculation is thriving. Teresa and Joy heard from a friend and government employee that, in his office, folks are betting the waters will be closed for five or even ten years. (That’s before they even open the waters.) “That’s the worst we’ve heard,” Joy said. Other guesses average in the three- to four-year range.
In between the explosion April 20 and the water closure June 1, business at Perdido Bay was tremendous. “It was like the Fourth of July,” their busiest week of the year, Joy said. The regular customers were stockpiling. People were buying shrimp to freeze for weddings in the Fall. “They thought it was going to be the last they were going to get,” Teresa said.
I asked if the family had a seafood stash of their own hidden off in a freezer somewhere. Joy looked at me mildly and said no, as if she hadn’t thought of it. “I don’t know. Your heart just isn’t in it, I guess.”
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Ashley Hall is an SFA member and contributer to Gravy, the SFA's foodletter. She is traveling along the Gulf Coast to capture stories relating to the oil spill as a traveling Gravy correspondent. We'll be posting relevant entries here, but visit the blog she's set up for the project, Third Coast Byways, for more.