Note: I went to New Orleans with a group of bloggers as part of a trip with the Lousiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, a small branch of the state's wildlife department. So far we've toured a crab facility, two oyster operations, and a shrimp facility to see first-hand how seafood is harvested and grown in the Gulf, and talk to fisherman about how the oil spill has affected their trade. Stay tuned in the coming days for snapshots from my trip! —Chichi
When you visit Louisiana's Bayou Country and talk to locals, you get a small sense of what it must be like to be born and raised here, where seafood is not only your income but your way of life. The houses are set atop high stilts; underneath, people park their cars, hang their hammocks, and lounge in the cool shade to protect from the hot Louisiana sun that makes this marshy land so verdant.
Rickety wooden signs across the Bayou advertise fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as crabs by the dozen and crayfish by the pound. The crayfish is cooked outside in large vats of seasoned water along with corn, sausage, heads of garlic, and small potatoes. Friends and neighbors hunker down at tables to shell their meals by hand.
This week I talked to locals in Bayou Country, fisherman and oystermen, as well as with representatives from Louisiana Seafood about the current state of seafood. Short answer: there was no consensus. While the oil spill caused serious environmental damage, the greater challenge is combating the negative press about Gulf seafood.
Restaurants displaying signs that proclaim, "We do not serve Gulf seafood" are doing much of the damage at this point, according to oystermen. They rely heavily on projections of consumer demand, and if the average eater's impression of Gulf seafood is still that of a heavily contaminated product, the seafood industry will take longer to bounce back.
Sam Slavich, a fourth generation oysterman, saw his yield of oysters cut in half as a result of the oil spill. Fifty percent is a common figure of loss among oyster operations in the area, both large and small, but it's not all directly linked to the spill.
When the spill occurred, the state required all oysterbeds to be flushed with freshwater, which killed the oysters growing in beds on the ocean floor. (Oystermen lease these from the state; they don't directly own the water where their oysters grow.)
Though some oystermen have been paid by both BP and the state, the claims process is a complicated system that doesn't always address the needs of every business impacted by the spill. Slavich confirmed that he has received some compensation from BP, but not nearly enough to make up for the loss of his oyster beds and the drop in consumer demand.
On the other end of the spectrum there's Motivatit Seafoods, one of the country's largest oyster producers based in Houma, Louisiana. Motrivatit appears to have a better working relationship with BP.
Mike Voison, CEO of the company and an eight generation oysterman, said that BP has gone "above and beyond" in settling claims, giving out money "they didn't have to give out" to oystermen and fishermen in the area. Voison spoke about the exaggerated media coverage of the BP oil spill, and how inevitable it was for some oystermen to "slip to through the cracks" in the claims process. He also emphasized that BP's spill contaminated a relatively small part of the Gulf at large.
We toured Motivatit's facilities, one of only two oyster plants in the country that uses a high pressure process of shucking to reduce the bacteria and denature the proteins of the abductor muscle that attach the oyster meat to the interior of the shell.
The Louisiana Seafood board chose these two oyster operations, Motivatit and Slavich's, for us to visit to represent the large and small ends of the business. I cannot, however, say that their interactions with BP are reflective of the greater experience of those in the seafood industry in Louisiana. So is Gulf seafood safe? Whatever the circumstances of the fishermen, crabbers, and oystermen making their livings from Gulf waters, it's clear that the seafood coming from the area is by far the most regulated of any in the country at the moment.