GALVESTON, Texas — About 20 restaurant owners who said seafood prices have soared since the Deepwater Horizon disaster gathered downtown Thursday to hear about their legal options.
Owners of restaurants big and small met at Sky Bar Steak and Sushi on Postoffice Street to hear what prominent attorney Tony Buzbee had to say.
None had signed on to sue BP, which was leasing the Deepwater Horizon on April 20 when the rig exploded, killing 11 and sending a huge plume of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.
The well has spewed millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf, forming the worst spill in U.S. history. By Tuesday, the spill had caused the closure of 37 percent — more than 88,000 square miles — of federal waters to fishing.
The spill, yet to be capped, is devastating tourism and fishing industries from Louisiana to Florida.
The restaurant owners gathered Thursday represented upscale establishments such as Rudy & Paco in Galveston’s downtown, casual eateries such as Taco House on Broadway and every type in between.
Although no oil has reached Texas shores, those who make a living selling seafood on the island said they’re feeling the effects through rising seafood prices.
Some said they were scrapping longtime price specials and stockpiling seafood.
Supplier prices for shrimp, oyster and crab meat have soared more than 30 percent, they said. Restaurants can pass only so much of the cost increase on to consumers before business starts hurting, they said.
Before the Deepwater disaster, Charley DiBella, who owns DiBella’s Italian Restaurant, was paying about $5.80 for a pound of shrimp. Since the disaster, prices have shot up to $9 a pound for large shrimp, he said.
But DiBella also worries that supply of large shrimp will be cut off completely, forcing restaurants to pay more for smaller shrimp.
"It’s a no-win situation," said DiBella, whose popular neighborhood restaurant still is recovering from Hurricane Ike in 2008 and a fire early last year.
Buzbee is representing 15 rig workers and dozens of shrimpers, wholesalers and others hurt by the spill.
Buzbee told the group Thursday that public perception about seafood safety and dwindling tourism could hurt their businesses.
BP already has paid about $48 million to individuals in the fishing industry through its own claims process. But slow payments led to an outcry, and BP said Thursday it would expedite those payments.
Restaurant owners here would have to track trends and prove losses, Buzbee said. The further removed from an industry directly hit by the disaster, the less chance for compensation, Buzbee said.
But restaurants truly hurt by the disaster had a strong chance, he said. Buzbee would get a 20 percent cut of the claims, he said.
Buzbee and other observers expect thousands upon thousands of lawsuits against BP.
A law passed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska makes BP responsible for cleanup costs. But the law caps other kinds of damages at $75 million.
Last month, however, several Democratic senators introduced legislation to raise the liability limit to $10 billion.
Although some Republican lawmakers agree the cap should be raised, they can’t agree by how much. Set too high, the liability cap would single out large companies such as BP and the four majors but shield smaller independents, they said.
Seafood prices have shot up so much, Donal Clark, owner of Miller’s Seawall Grill, has had to forgo popular $9.99 specials, raising prices to $12.99, he said.
Shrimp prices have risen 35 percent, he said.
Clark is buying supplies a month ahead, hoping to stockpile seafood before prices soar again, he said.
Pedro Quintanilla, who owns Taco House on Broadway, said he serves mostly Mexican food, but tourists visit his restaurant for fried shrimp.
"I’m really concerned," Quintanilla said. "I’m here for information."
This story was brought to you thanks to khou.com’s partnership with The Galveston County Daily News.