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Seafood lovers, March is your month

Produce may be a bit bedraggled and costly after January's cool weather, but fish and shrimp are plentiful and affordable.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2001


So what if grouper prices are up a bit? After all, there are other fish in the sea. Indulge in some red snapper, mahi mahi or cod.

Or pink shrimp. It's a good buy this month.

The monthlong commercial grouper fishing ban, which ends next week, has prompted some supermarkets and restaurants to raise prices. At most fish markets, though, prices have remained stable.

In produce departments, prolonged cold weather earlier this year still is affecting supplies and, consequently, prices. March should bring some relief, however.

"We're hoping for a recovery," said Bob Blankenship of the Florida Department of Agriculture. "The freeze is having a longer-lingering effect than we thought. There is a very limited amount of cucumbers and eggplants, just a few scattered here and there. We're still short of sweet corn. Tomatoes are still a bit low. Bell peppers are still short. The weather stayed cool too long."

Prices are beginning to moderate, but it could be April before things get back to normal, Blankenship said. By then, only two months will remain in Florida's most important growing and harvesting season.

"It has not been a good year," Blankenship said.

Produce

March typically is a good month to shop for apples, artichokes, asparagus, avocados, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, grapefruit, ugli fruit, lettuce, okra, spinach and papayas.

End of season: Florida tangerines and temple oranges.

Seafood

Though grouper may not be plentiful, seafood should be abundant enough to meet the traditional heavy demand during the Lenten season.

March 15 will bring an end to the first monthlong ban on commercial grouper fishing off the Gulf Coast. The ban, to prevent overfishing, has been controversial, but markets such as Trappman's Crabtrap and Shrimp Shack on Gandy Boulevard were prepared.

Bill Trappman said he stocked up on fresh grouper before the ban went into effect.

"As soon we knew it was coming, we went ahead and bought a whole load of fresh fish, and we iced them with a brine," said Trappman, who runs the family-owned business with his wife and son.

With that supply dwindling, he was prepared to dip into the remainder, which he had frozen.

"Each one was made like a Popsicle," said Trappman of the individually frozen grouper.

Trappman's is selling black grouper at $10.99 a pound for fillets, no higher than last year's price, he said.

Grouper is selling for the same price at Save on Seafood on 49th Street S, said Gib Migliano. "You get to a point where there's customer resistance" to extraordinarily high prices, he said. "Prices have not gotten up to where we thought they would. I've heard as high as $12.99, but I don't know how much they're selling at that price."

Although the ban affected local gag, black and red grouper, imported grouper from Mexico and Latin America has been available in some markets, Trappman and Migliano said. Neither sells imported grouper.

Meanwhile, the season for red snapper opened March 1. Whole snapper will be available for around $4.99 a pound and fillets for about $7.99 a pound, Migliano said.

Mahi mahi will be a good value this month, with fillets selling for about $4.59 a pound. And, said Migliano, boneless cod fillets from Alaska will be as low as $4.99 a pound.

As well, said Migliano, shrimp has taken "a tremendous nose-dive in price," dropping as much as $2 a pound below normal.

At Trappman's expect to pay $1.99 a pound for mackerel and $2.99 a pound for sheepshead. Mangrove snapper will cost about $3.99 a pound and hog snapper about $4.99 a pound. Flounder is $4.99.

"There is plenty of fresh fish to eat," Trappman said.

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