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Grouper price soars as diners demand real thing

A dwindling supply forces some restaurants to pull the fish. Others are amazed at what customers will pay.

Published May 4, 2007

[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Jon Freiberg of Largo unloads grouper on the docks at TW Wholesale in Madeira Beach Thursday. A total of 3,880 pounds of grouper were unloaded from the Marsha Lynn fishing boat Thursday.

From the white linens of a classic Tampa restaurant to the beachside decks of a Pass-a-Grille institution, Florida grouper is getting expensive and hard to find.

Diners, rattled by reports of fake grouper, are asking for the real thing just as Florida's aging grouper fleet struggles through a prolonged drought.

So prices are soaring and restaurants are scrambling to adjust.

Columbia Restaurant, a Tampa Bay area institution for more than a century, announced this week that it had removed grouper from the menu of its seven stores around the state because of inadequate supplies.

On Friday, the Hurricane restaurant on Pass-a-Grille temporarily stopped serving the grouper sandwich that made it famous.

Grouper fillets that wholesaled for $7 last year now run $10, Hurricane manager Rick Falkenstein said Thursday.

"It is so high I don't want residents thinking I'm ripping them off," Falkenstein said. "I will never pay that price for what they were asking."

Hurricane's "fresh catch" now is either mahi mahi, snapper or tilapia.

The Gulf of Mexico's grouper catch is often cyclical and maddening.

"We had the same problem five or six years ago," said Mark Twinam, owner of TW Wholesale, a Madeira Beach fish house. "Then we had a storm come through in the fall and grouper came out of the woodwork and the price dropped like a rock.

"But I don't remember it being this slow in a long time."

Many restaurants relied on frozen imports to fill the gap. They can cost half the price of fresh domestic grouper, said Gibby Migliano, manager of Save on Seafood, a major St. Petersburg wholesaler and distributor.

Now, restaurant demand for fresh grouper "has spiked 15 to 20 percent," he said.

The cause: worries over fake grouper, Migliano said.

Last year, the St. Petersburg Times tested "grouper" dinners and sandwiches from 11 restaurants and found that six were other types of fish. The Florida attorney general's office investigated, with similar results.

Five restaurants paid $2,500 fines and 12 others are under investigation for possible civil sanctions.

The revelations and sanctions "have successfully scared every restaurant operator in the state of Florida," Migliano said. "We have seen the restaurant business pick up tremendously."

Fourth Street Shrimp Store in St. Petersburg was caught in the attorney general's net. The restaurant paid for imported grouper and the supplier, Sysco Foods West Coast Florida, tested grouper samples from the importer.

Still, the restaurant failed the attorney general's grouper test, much to its embarrassment, said manager Brian Connell.

"After 20 years in business, to have something like this happening to us, there is no worse thing," Connell said.

The Shrimp Store still offers a lunch fillet for $7.99 but it's tilapia or cod, not imported grouper.

It's also selling a red grouper sandwich for $12.99. Connell knows it is genuine because the restaurant buys it whole and cuts the fillets.

"It actually shocked me. At $12.99, it is approaching our No. 1 sandwich," he said. "People want grouper."

While demand spikes, the supply shrinks.

No one knows for sure why the grouper catch is off. In 2006, federal regulators limited commercial trips to 6,000 pounds to protect red grouper. That hamstrung some heavy producers, but does not account for the dwindling supply.

Boats that supply Save On Seafood routinely brought in 4,000 to 5,000 pounds a trip and now sometimes return with less than 2,000, Migliano said.

Ed Small, who fished grouper for 27 years, is rerigging his boat for porgies, a small, less desirable species in the snapper family.

Last year, Small said, he caught about 1,200 pounds of grouper a day in January and February; that dropped to 375 this year.

In one odd wrinkle of fishery management, a new regulation that targets red snapper fishing in Louisiana and Texas may be keeping grouper off restaurant tables in Florida.

For the first time this year, commercial fishermen were assigned individual red snapper quotas, most of which went to eastern gulf snapper fishermen.

Assured they can catch their snapper any time they want, eastern fishermen reportedly spent the early months of 2007 targeting yellowedge grouper, a deep-water species limited by a general, gulf-wide quota.

Grouper fishermen out of Madeira Beach, worried that the eastern snapper fleet would quickly fill the yellowedge quota, headed to deeper water to capture their traditional share, said Madeira Beach boat owner Dean Pruitt.

Yellowedge traditionally are shipped to Canada, where diners have a taste for it. Florida restaurants mainly serve red grouper, which lives in shallow water.

Through February, deep-water grouper landings ran 5 percent ahead of last year, while shallow-water red grouper landings had dropped almost 50 percent.

Whatever the reason, the Hurricane's Falkenstein has a message about the red grouper that built his restaurant's reputation.

"Let's just hope the fishermen find some more fish. It's a nice fish. Fishermen, hurry up."

Times staff writer Melanie Ave contributed to this report.

Fast Facts:

How can you tell if it's really grouper?
Fresh grouper from the Gulf of Mexico is white, mild tasting and tends to share certain characteristics.

Size: Fillets tend to be 1 to 2 inches thick, though those cut from the tail can be thinner.

Flake: Most grouper flakes apart in big chunks.

Price: Right now, an 8-ounce sandwich will cost about $10 to $13. Smaller fillets can cost less.

Bottom line: Imported grouper can closely resemble Florida grouper. But it can also be thin and inexpensive and taste considerably different. Without a protein or DNA test, it is difficult to distinguish whether or not a given cooked fish is a grouper.


Red grouper at Save on Seafood, St. Petersburg

6-oz. fried grouper sandwich, the Colonnade, Tampa 8-oz. black grouper sandwich, Dockside Dave's, Madeira Beach
$14.29 a pound today $10.99 today $10.95 today
$10.99 a year ago $8.99 a year ago $9.45 a year ago
5-oz. red grouper with side, Harvey's 4th Street Grill, St. Petersburg Red grouper sandwich, Fourth Street Shrimp Store, St. Petersburg Red grouper, Madeira Beach Seafood fish house
$10.95 today $12.99 today (fresh caught) Fishermen get $3.30/lb. today
$9.95 a year ago $6.99 a year ago (imported) They got $2.30/lb. a year ago

[Last modified May 4, 2007, 08:03:09]

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