Rebuilding an industry

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Within the last three months, Gulf seafood has suffered damages that cripple the industry, but the damage isn’t just with fishing areas being closed. Instead, it is the “unsafe to eat” stigma that hangs over the industry’s head that is felt the most in recent days.

“Right now the general perception is that Gulf seafood is tainted,” Peter Fischbach, a chef from Toms River, N.J., told the Associated Press. “If it’s not safe; it’s not edible. It’s not going to make its way to the market.”

But even though local fishermen are fishing in oil-free waters, crab retailers like The Poor Dock in Lower Dularge and Bait House Seafood in Chauvin are having trouble finding buyers.

“We need it to be known nationally that the seafood is OK,” said Bait House Seafood co-owner Samantha Sevin. “The closures here were just a precaution, and Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is checking it everyday.”

Bait House Seafood has seen a 90 percent decrease in business, and The Poor Dock’s output has gone from 150 boxes of crabs a day to fewer than 40 thanks to the lack of nationwide buyers. Both added that no tourists passing through the area doesn’t help matters either.

“We aren’t selling any to the public, and we’re having trouble selling this, because they’re spooked out,” said Poor Dock crabber Charles Russ.

Now that the BP well is capped, Louisiana wants to restore its industry. This industry constitutes 2 percent of U.S. seafood consumption and has an annual economic impact of more than $2.4 billion, according to the Louisiana Seafood Board.

“We are pleased that the latest effort to seal the BP oil well appears to have been successful,” Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Board said in a press release. “For three plus months Louisianans have watched as our livelihood, culture and economy have been crippled by this terrible environmental disaster.”

Many fishermen in Louisiana and other Gulf states, commercial and private alike, are still unable to fish because of closures in certain areas as a result of the 53 million gallons of oil that still rests in Gulf waters.

And with lots of precautionary openings and closures by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, some fishermen are confused as to where they can and cannot fish at any given time.

“They’ve opened and closed the shrimp season almost 40 times,” said Sevin. “It’s very confusing.”

Although Bait House Seafood remains open four days a week, some businesses that have been in operation for generations have been forced to close, and some companies are substituting imported product for Gulf seafood.

Smith doesn’t want closures to be the future of the seafood industry, and is calling upon the federal government for help.

“Our challenge,” Smith said, “is trying to turn this perception around, so we’re calling on [Obama] to help us to continue to work with public health agencies as unified voice.”

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus knows the quality of Gulf seafood, and stands by the product.

“One of the things I say and one of the things we’ve got to make sure we get out is Gulf seafood is now the safest seafood you can eat on this planet, because it’s tested more,” Mabus said during a stop in Houma last week.

In addition to pushing the quality of the product, Smith also wants to see fishermen get back to work.

“BP can do this by immediately embracing our Back To The Dock program, which will be an incentive fishermen to return to work harvesting safe fish from approved waters,” said Smith, who introduced the Back To The Dock program to BP in May.

But with many local fishermen working for the Vessels of Opportunity program, they will need to cease working for BP before they can resume harvesting seafood.

“Vessels of Opportunity took a dent, because a lot of people are working for BP,” Sevin said.

But if the Vessels of Opportunity program ends before waters are open, then local fishermen and restaurant owners like Jody Martin of 1921 Seafood on the Bayou in Cocodrie who has a contract with BP may really be in a bind.

“If the contract goes on for another six months, then we know we’re safe for another six months,” said Martin. “But if we don’t get our fishing back [in the future], then who knows. If BP leaves and we still can’t fish, this whole area is in trouble.”

But with livelihoods on the line, many locals say they aren’t ready to give up their way of life.

“We know our quality, we eat it every day, we’re going to keep eating it every day and we want everyone else to really enjoy our seafood,” Katherine Gilbert of Terrebonne Economic Development Authority said.

Editor’s Note: Staff writer Richard Fischer contributed to this article.