New Orleans without seafood gumbo? Oil spill's unsavory toll.

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has already led to a 10-day shutdown of fishing off parts of the Louisiana coast. New Orleans restaurants are coping, but they're also planning for worse to come.

By , Staff writer

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    A customer eats charbroiled oysters at Felix's Seafood Restaurant in New Orleans Sunday. The owner says 60 percent of his oysters come from the east side of the Mississippi, where the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead is moving.
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The BP oil spill and its effect on state fisheries may soon force a rewriting of New Orleans menus from the seafood cuisine that the Crescent City is best known for to less distinctive fare.

Seafood is a cultural benchmark of a proper New Orleans lifestyle, where events such as high school graduation parties and church fundraisers usually feature long tables spilling over with crawfish. Tourists come to sample cups of gumbo and more refined fare like shrimp Clemenceau, which, when successful, can turn chefs into local celebrities.

From neighborhood joints to French Quarter bistros, however, restaurants of all shapes and sizes are tracking the oil spill’s progress to determine what they need to do to keep dishing out their signature items. It could mean stockpiling seafood, ordering from Texas at higher costs, or – in a worst-case scenario – taking items off menus altogether. But restaurateurs hope it won't come to that.

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The most significant threat to that culture so far came Sunday when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, announced a 10-day ban on all recreational and commercial fishing between the mouth of the Mississippi River and Florida’s Pensacola Bay.

Despite its potential effect on eateries, the stoppage is supported by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. “We want to make sure no product from those areas go to marketplace,” says Executive Director Ewell Smith. “The safety of our consumers is priority No. 1.”

Restaurants looking for backup plans

But restaurateurs in New Orleans are starting to look elsewhere for supplies in case the ban lasts longer than 10 days. At Frankie & Johnny’s, an Uptown institution serving up heaping plates of crawfish and oysters since 1942, co-owner Tony Cortello says rather than ordering day to day, he is now ordering seafood for the entire week. Stockpiling volume is a safeguard against how much his patrons consume: 100 pounds of shrimp every three days.

“I bought as much seafood as I could,” Mr. Cortello says.

He is also planning to order from Texas, which means he is training his wait staff to retool their sales pitch, from promoting a locally harvested crop to one that is just “made in the USA.” Another solution, he says, is highlighting the uniquely Southern cuisine on the menu that does not involve seafood, such as chicken fried steak or eggplant Parmesan.

If more restaurants start ordering seafood from fisheries farther away from the state, menu prices are likely to increase. “Either we serve it or we don’t serve it.… We have to charge according to the amount we are paying for it,” says Kevin Bauer, a manager with Deannie’s Seafood in the French Quarter.

'Afraid of our seafood'

How long restaurants will face this situation is anyone’s guess. Mr. Smith of the state’s seafood marketing board says that fishing is open on the west side of the Mississippi River, which represents about 77 percent of the state’s waters. He worries that if the spill is not contained soon, public perception outside Louisiana will revert back to the days following Katrina when “people became afraid of our seafood.”

“It took us almost two years to turn this issue around,” he says. “We’re trying very hard to getting ahead of the curve. We do have safe seafood right now.”

Related: 

One place in Louisiana people are praising BP

How to stop the BP oil spill: What else can be tried now?

Town where Katrina made landfall now braces for BP oil spill

Oil spill: What is the threat to Gulf of Mexico seafood?

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