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Friday, August 27, 2010

Even in Louisiana customers wary of Gulf shrimp; Aug 16th opening was non-event

Posted: Friday, August 27, 2010 Even in Louisiana customers wary of Gulf shrimp; Aug 16th opening was non-event SEAFOOD.COM NEWS [Los Angeles Times] By Kim Murphy, Aug 27, 2010 -Reporting from Venice, La. Ñ President Obama served plates of barbecued gulf shrimp to guests at his 49th birthday party Aug. 9. But Kindra Arnesen, who runs a shrimp boat with her husband here in southern Louisiana, isn't nearly ready to eat what comes out of the tepid gray waters. When news first hit of the massive oil blowout 50 miles southeast of here, Arnesen filled her freezer with shrimp. She has no intention of eating fresh seafood until she stops hearing from her fellow fishermen about blobs of oil on the sea bottom and tiny droplets of dispersed hydrocarbons in the water. 'I'm not going to sell somebody something I wouldn't feed my own kids, and we're not eating it,' Arnesen said. 'They can eat burgers for awhile.' The $272-million seafood industry that is as much a part of Louisiana as Mardi Gras is struggling to regain traction in a market that is showing little appetite for local seafood after BP's busted well gushed an estimated 4.1 million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the reopening of most gulf waters to commercial fishing, many fishermen say that early catches of shrimp and oysters have been meager, prompting fears that the oil spill generation may have been largely wiped out. Just as big a challenge, though, has been getting the troubled fishing industry back up and running. The opening of white shrimp season Aug. 16, much anticipated after months of fishing closures, was almost a nonevent - the majority of shrimp boat owners were still working on the BP cleanup, many earning $1,500 a day or more, which at today's depressed shrimp prices can be more lucrative than fishing. Local seafood buyers bereft of supply are closing their docks to keep losses from multiplying, leaving shrimpers who couldn't get hired by BP with few outlets to sell their catch. Meanwhile, national frozen fish buyers are driving down prices, threatening to eviscerate the gulf seafood industry's future markets by signing new contracts for Asian and Latin American shrimp. 'Definitely, the image of seafood has been damaged badly,' said Ewell Smith of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. 'We had 24-hour, real time video of a BP gusher coming up from the bottom of the gulf. That image, along with the oiled pelicans, has just been sealed in the minds of consumers. It will take a long time to undo that.' Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal estimated that the hit to the commercial fishing industry from the oil spill could cost the state $1.4 billion in losses spread throughout the economy. Famed New Orleans restaurants like Commander's Palace and the Acme Oyster House have been reassuring nervous patrons and scouring the gulf for oysters Ñ half of the state's oyster beds have been destroyed, in large part when state and federal officials opened levees and released fresh water to help push spilled oil away from the coast. 'People are scared to eat the seafood here,' said Michael Regua, executive chef at Antoine's in the French Quarter, the restaurant that invented Oysters Rockefeller. 'I get daily calls: 'Is it good? Is it hard to get?' Yes, it's good. And it's very hard to get.' Federal and state officials insist that thousands of tests have shown that the seafood is safe, and have reopened 85% of the state's waters to commercial fishing. Farther offshore, 78% of the U.S.-controlled gulf waters are open. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the federal Food and Drug Administration have run tests on thousands of water samples and fish plucked from the reopened areas. 'To date, absolutely zero samples have revealed anything remotely close to being a concern. There are barely detectible levels of hydrocarbons, and when they are detectable, they're way below normal background levels,' said Randy Pausina, assistant state wildlife and fisheries secretary. Officials from the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency told Congress last week that they had also looked for one of the leading chemical markers in the 1.8 million gallons of dispersant poured in unprecedented volumes into the gulf, and had not detected a problem. 'We are confident that based on the current science, the likelihood for bio-concentration in fish is very low, and should it occur, the toxicity of those occupants would be very low,' Deputy FDA Director Donald Kraemer told the House energy and environment subcommittee. But researchers at Tulane University announced this month that they had tentatively identified trace amounts of oil and possibly dispersant in tiny orange blobs that have been found under the shells of crab larvae Ñ an important food source for other fish Ñ collected since May from across the Gulf Coast. Kraemer admitted that federal scientists had tested only for a relatively harmless, detergent-like component that is an easy marker for the dispersant Corexit, and had not developed tests for other components. That has worried some biologists, who say some chemicals in the dispersants have the ability to rupture cell membranes and damage the liver and kidneys. Fishermen who have plied the reopened waters nearest the oil spill say catches have been meager compared with years past. Shrimp are always fickle; seasons vary. But many are concerned. Acy J. Cooper, a longtime shrimper and vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Assn., said he brought in only 500 pounds of shrimp, when normally he would have caught up to 2,000. And the price had gone down from more than $2 a pound before the spill to $1.25. 'I put $400 worth of fuel alone in my boat, and making $600 a day just doesn't cut it,' Cooper said. 'Where's the fish? I don't know. Who knows if the oil didn't kill them?' Biologists fear that shrimp larvae, far out into the gulf, would have had to negotiate a cloud of oil and dispersants to reach the marshes and inner waters off Louisiana. 'Did these massive amounts of oil or dispersed oil, when it encountered shrimp eggs or larvae moving toward shore, did it kill them? Because it should kill them at that stage,' said Pausina, the Louisiana wildlife official. State officials won't know until more studies are done, and until the size of the catch is known by mid-September when shrimpers begin submitting their first catch tickets. Many shrimpers think the state rushed to reopen fishing grounds sooner than they should have. 'Why is the state jumping in and pushing this idea [of going back to fishing] right now? I don't know what's their motive. I do know it's going to mess up our [damage] claims,' Cooper said. 'They're going to say, 'The waters are opened. Why aren't you out there working?'' Kip Marquize, a Franklinton, La., shrimper who is still working on the BP cleanup, said he is still seeing areas of oil-affected water. 'They opened it because there were some really desperate people that needed to go to work,' Marquize said. 'And now, because people aren't jumping for joy to go catch shrimp or to eat the shrimp, it's making people more aware that everything isn't just fine.' 'I've seen water that looked yellow. I've seen water that'd have this crazy-looking color to it,' he said. 'I've been out here 26 years, and I've never seen these conditions in the water. And this water is circulating all up in the fishing grounds.' What's needed now, fishing industry officials said, are financial incentives to get fishermen back to work and a national marketing program to reassure consumers that Louisiana seafood is safe. State officials are urging BP to fund both, but the company has so far made no commitment. 'Have you seen BP's commercials? I can't even imagine what BP is spending to rebuild their band,' said Smith, of the seafood marketing board. 'And the responsibility for this falls squarely on their shoulders.' John Sackton, Editor And Publisher Seafood.com News 1-781-861-1441 Email comments to jsackton@seafood.com

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