Gulf oil spill: Can region keep its seafood on America's dinner tables?
The Gulf oil spill leaves the region's seafood industry with a serious image problem, the same challenge it took Alaskan fishermen 10 years to overcome after Exxon Valdez. How long will it take to restore the American consumer's confidence in the Gulf brand?
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A small army of government testers, utilizing sniff, taste, and chemical tests for lingering toxic hydrocarbons, haven't found anything wrong with freshly caught grouper, speckled trout, and shrimp. The best New Orleans chefs are on TV ticking off the cornucopia of Gulf sea life that's good to eat.
But ask Jan Weddle Buffum of Maine if she's keen on the Gulf's seafood and the answer is more than a no. "I hope I am NOT eating anything from the Gulf!" she responded to a Monitor reporter's Facebook query. "I ask whenever I buy seafood."
In a normal year, the Gulf supplies the majority of domestic shrimp and oysters to American dinner tables, equaling about 2 percent of the total seafood consumed in the United States. For the Gulf states, $10.5 billion of gross domestic product is tied to the fishing industry, a number that could be halved this year by the 200-million-gallon oil spill that closed a third of the Gulf's critical fishing grounds.
Now the Gulf fishing business faces a big question: Can it overcome the same kinds of tainted food scandals that have hit the peanut, tomato, spinach, and egg industries in recent years – or will lingering suspicion further hobble the historic, but ailing, fishery?
"There is still purchasing loyalty toward buying Gulf Coast shrimp, but that purchasing loyalty is weakening," warned John Lambert, a consumer-behavior expert at Southern Mississippi University, after an August consumer survey.
About 43,000 square miles of the Gulf's nearly 300,000-square-mile fishing area remain closed because of the spill. But as 5,100 square miles of prime shrimping grounds reopened in early September, the market reflected hedged bets on whether consumers will bite.
The most recent statistics show Gulf shrimp selling for $1.50 a pound at the dock – half of what shrimpers were getting in late June. "Gulf shrimp demand is listed as down, and pricing continues to move downward," reported FAB Inc., a national food-buying cooperative, on Sept. 10.
Fishermen face a five-year climb or longer to restore the reputation of their catch, says Ashley Roth, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Seafood and Marketing Board.
Alaskan fishermen said it took 10 years for them to rebuild the image of Alaskan seafood after 1989's Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, even though the vast majority of the fishery was unaffected.
But unlike other recent tainted-food scandals, the Gulf fishing industry is taking a beating based more on fear than fact, say food-safety experts. No evidence of taint from the spill has yet been found amid more than 2,000 samples taken.