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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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US Food and Drug Administration guidelines for toxicity take into account an adult eating three pounds of fish per month, and about 1.6 pounds total of shrimp, crabs, and oysters. The FDA figures only about 10 percent of seafood-eaters consume that much per month. Moreover, experts say contamination that's significant enough to hurt someone would be noticeable to most alert consumers. (Think oily shrimp.)

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"This is a great example of where one bad apple can destroy all the confidence," says Walt Dickhoff, who oversees the chemical testing now being done at random on Gulf seafood samples. "And that's why we're very conservative about [reopening fishing grounds]. Everything has to pass. If there's one fish out of the hundreds sampled for an area that fails, then the entire area fails."

While much of the oil from the spill has dissipated, scientists are still finding lots of it, including a swath that has settled on the Gulf bottom.

The decision to open the 5,100 square miles in early September was based on 73 individual shrimp samples taken from an area the size of Connecticut, noted Gina Solomon, a member of the Environmental Protection Agency's scientific advisory board, on the National Resource Defense Council website. "Does that reassure you that they've really found whatever contamination might be out there?" she asks.

In August, even some shrimp-boat captains protested the reopening of the federal waters, saying the government isn't testing enough samples across a wide enough area to allay public suspicion.

The Gulf fishery can scarcely afford to take the hit. Louisiana alone has seen its population of commercial fishermen halved since 1987, to fewer than 13,000, largely as a result of cheaper imported seafood grabbing market share. The spill could accelerate that trend. Meanwhile, fishermen are faced with having to negotiate long-term losses with Robert Feinberg, the administrator of a $20 billion BP escrow account, in order to stay afloat until consumer confidence rebounds.

Moreover, because of their independent nature and fractured industry, fishermen have weak trade associations compared with those of other agricultural products such as spinach and peanuts, leaving them less able to respond to failing consumer confidence. That has to change, many say.

"We're going to have to advertise and use some spokesman that people trust to get out there to say, 'The product is safe, there's nothing wrong with it,' " says Greg Ladnier, president of Sea Pearl Seafood in Bayou La Batre, Ala.

The White House is trying to help. President Obama has served fresh Gulf seafood at the White House. And in mid-September, White House chef Cris Comerford traveled to New Orleans for a block party thrown by some of the Big Easy's top chefs, featuring the best – and presumably safest – seafood even an oil-haunted Gulf of Mexico has to offer.