On the spot: Ray Boyer, Maria’s

Maria’s Fresh Seafood Market, a wholesale and retail outlet in Pensacola, Fla., is among the multitude of Gulf Coast businesses battling consumer misconceptions about the oil spill.

Many restaurants, retailers, hotels and other businesses have watched sales drop over the past two weeks due to public perception that beaches and fishing along the Gulf Coast are closed entirely. The reality is, of course, that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has shut down only a 10,807-square-mile area to commercial fishing, between southeastern Louisiana and the eastern edge of Florida’s Pensacola Bay, less than 5 percent of Gulf of Mexico waters.

On the Spot talked to Ray Boyer, manager of Maria’s Fresh Seafood Market, who recently met with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and other officials to figure out a way to combat public concerns about beach closures and seafood safety. The owners of Maria’s also operate Pegleg Pete’s Oyster Bar, Lafitte Cove Marina and Sidelines sports bar, all in Pensacola.

Blank: What ‘s the business and tourism climate like in Pensacola right now?
You hear reports up and down the beaches of 40 percent to 50 percent cancellations. If the hotel attendance drops and the tourist attendance drops, all your restaurant business is going to drop. It is a just a perception about what people think the Gulf is looking like. Everybody local is going to the beaches. It is just the tourists, who are catching CNN or whatever, who don’t know. The oil spill comprises only 4.5 percent of the Gulf of Mexico, which means that you have around 95 percent of the Gulf still up and running. There is still plenty of fishing being done right now for good, quality fish.

What was your message to government officials at the meeting in Pensacola last week?
We asked them to get the word out that it is business as usual here. That is what was stressed by a lot of us. We asked them, “How can you control the negative media?” The media loves dirty laundry. Let’s speak positive about what we have and where we are now. We are trying to be optimistic that, weather permitting, we can come out of this better than anticipated.

Which fisheries in the Pensacola area and the Gulf may by impacted by the oil spill? 
The cobia are running right now, through the end or middle of May. They are catching a lot of Spanish mackerel, and a lot of grouper. We use 95 percent local seafood, and we are all concerned about the oil spill messing that up for us.

What would really hurt the most is for the oil to get in the shrimp season. They opened the season early in Louisiana, so they can get out and get what they can, and the oil is staying to the east of the most prime Louisiana fishing grounds. Still, my retail shrimp is 100 percent Gulf shrimp. It has a better flavor than other shrimp I have had. Of course, we will want to see if we can get some other type of wild shrimp, but everybody is going to be trying to pull out of the same hat. The demand is going to be high, and the price is going to skyrocket [if Gulf shrimp is impacted by the oil spill].

The long-term thing [we are concerned about] is the oysters. We are very spoiled here: oysters are our backyard delicacy. Everywhere else, oysters are sold by the piece, and here they are sold by the pound. The oyster beds can’t run if oil gets to shore, so it ruins years and years of work with oysters. We are already trying to think about other niches to help supply oysters, but it is a high cost of freight and a crazy amount of money to get the other ones.

How has the oil spill impacted retail sales for Maria’s Fresh Seafood?
I wouldn’t say there is a drop in retail, because people here know how good the local seafood is. Restaurants and tourism-related businesses are hurting the most. People are coming in now and stocking their freezers. They feel like it is going to be out of style soon. The fishing boats are trying to get their fishing done, in case things turn. We buy directly from fishermen up and down the coast and different markets up and down the coast.

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