Oil and Water

There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. The precise volume of oil and natural gas escaping from the ruptured well is the subject of debate, as is the size of the slick on the surface of the water. The volume and potential impact of the sub-surface oil is another question. Just how damaging the spill will be to those who work the coastal waters for a living and to those of us who consume the seafood they provide is an additional mystery, though just about everyone agrees that the situation is dire.

According to the Louisiana Seafood Promotion Board, the total economic impact of Louisiana’s seafood industry is approximately $2.4 billion annually. The board breaks that number down, in part, as follows: there are 1,000 crawfish farmers and an additional 800 commercial fishermen catching wild bugs who together bring in about 110 million pounds of crawfish every year, with an economic impact of $120 million. Of oysters caught in the United States, 70 percent come from the Gulf Coast. The bivalves have an economic impact of $317 million annually, and they provide jobs for 3,565 people. Fishing for and processing crabs account for 3,289 jobs and $293 million annually. Shrimp caught in our waters mean work for 14,384 people and bring in $1.3 billion dollars every year. That’s not even counting alligators, which I consider mythical creatures akin to unicorns but which the board says provide employment for half as many people as the NOPD and bring in $104 million each year. (The board has no figures for the unicorn harvest.)

On Tuesday afternoon I spoke to Joe Lafont, who worked a double-rigger in the Gulf catching shrimp for 10 years and now captains the Mandy Lynn, a smaller vessel that operates inside Barataria Bay. That area, and many others, remains open to the folks who make their living on the water. As of this writing, approximately 19 percent of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico are closed to fishing. Ten of Louisiana’s 28 oyster areas are closed at the moment, but there is grave concern that as the oil moves ashore, more will be closed.

Lafont told me that right now, the shrimp he harvests from the brackish waters of Bayou Dupont and Bay Round are as plentiful as ever, though the early start to the season means that most of his catch are small. The price he’s getting is good now, too; in fact, it’s the best in years. Last year he could sell small shrimp for 45 cents per pound, and he’s now getting 85 cents.

But that price increase comes with a concern. Joe was boiling crabs last week and offered some to a passerby. The man, Joe said, told him, “Oh, no, man, we ain’t eating no crabs now.” Anecdotal evidence from outside of Louisiana suggests that the reputation of Louisiana and Gulf Coast seafood, once unimpeachable, is in jeopardy. It’s bad enough that locals would be hesitant to eat seafood from our waters; the concern for the Louisiana seafood industry is that consumers across the country will be similarly reluctant.

Until the recent troubles, the Louisiana provenance of fish, shellfish and bivalves was an undeniably positive characteristic. “Product of Louisiana” was used in marketing, and the superior flavor, freshness and quality of seafood from our waters was widely recognized. But good reputations can be fleeting, and though high prices for those who can still harvest seafood are appealing in the short term, if the reputation of Louisiana seafood takes a hit, those prices won’t last.

With the spread of oil apparently widening and with some oil reaching our coastal marshes, it’s no surprise that the NOAA Fisheries Service has started to widen the area forbidden to fishermen in the Gulf. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has a policy for closing fishing areas on a precautionary basis when it receives reports from field biologists and trajectory models from NOAA:

Once reports of oil are received, LDWF initiates a field survey and immediate seafood testing in the suspected areas. Closures are subsequently made with the intent to be as safe as possible, while not closing any fishing areas unnecessarily. As test results come back clearing the area, the affected waters are then reopened.

That’s a prudent policy, of course, because nobody wants to consume seafood tainted with oil. It’s also in line with the Louisiana Seafood Promotion Board, which so far has backed the state’s pre-emptive closings of oyster beds and fishing areas. The intent, again, is to reassure consumers that the seafood we are able to pull from local waters is safe.

What’s at stake here is more than the initial economic impact. I’ll leave to the more politically and economically astute a discussion of whether offshore drilling should be limited as a result of the Horizon explosion. Clearly, however, if the drilling is to continue, additional safeguards must be put in place, not only on the rigs that suck the oil from beneath the seabed but also on the vessels and infrastructure that transport and process the resources. More must also be done to restore the wetlands lost each year to the encroaching waters of the Gulf. In New Orleans, we’ve focused on that issue mainly with regard to how it affects our ability to withstand hurricanes, but the Horizon leak has brought into focus the value that our coastal marshes have to the seafood industry and recreational fishers.

For now, most local restaurants are able to secure local seafood. Galatoire’s recently put a statement on its Web site to reassure diners that the seafood served in the restaurant is safe and from parts of the coastline not contaminated by petroleum products. “In accordance with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ guidelines, Galatoire’s requires each of our seafood purveyors to provide a ‘trip ticket’ identifying the exact geographic areas where our fish and shellfish are caught or harvested. These regulations make our fishermen and other purveyors accountable to us and the state of Louisiana.”

Those regulations, which were passed by the Louisiana Legislature in 1991 and finally funded sufficiently to start the program in 1999, are designed both to ensure the safety of the catch and to provide fishery scientists with data to assess the health of the stock. We should be doing more to publicize the requirements, if for no other reason than to assure consumers that restaurants serving seafood have a way to verify that the shrimp, crabs, oysters and fish delivered to their kitchens come from waters not fouled by oil.

I am not yet in panic mode about the situation, but possibly that’s because I’m completely naive. It could also be because listening to Garland Robinette on the radio, I swear to God I have no idea what to think. That man changes positions more than an epileptic in an earthquake. Or something. He changes positions a lot is all I’m saying.

I for one am not going to stop eating seafood from the Gulf Coast. I’m going to continue to support our industry because I recognize how important the industry is to South Louisiana and New Orleans. But it’s mainly because I love the oysters, shrimp and fish that we have heretofore taken for granted. Under the current circumstances, I think most of us are looking at the bounty from our coastal waters in a new light. The prospect of losing such a tremendous resource is truly horrifying, but while we need to recognize the potential enormity of the problem, we also need to continue to buy local seafood –– because if we don’t, who will? If, as I read earlier this week, restaurants in other parts of the country are advertising that their seafood is not from the Gulf, what’s going to happen to the men and women who make their livings working our waters? Do we really want to see shrimp from Asia replace our shrimp? Do we want to eat frozen seafood year-round? I say we fight this thing just as the characters did in that movie starring Will Smith or Kevin Costner or that guy who’s married to that attractive woman with a drinking problem where the aliens blew up the White House or something. We fight! And by “fight,” I mean, “Buy local seafood as often as we can for as long as we can!”

Who’s with me?

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