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Gulf Seafood Industry Battles Oil and Public Perception

posted on August 13, 2010

Alabama Attorney General Troy King filed suit this week against BP and other companies involved in the catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico. King alleges the groups damaged the state's coast and economy through "negligence or failure to adhere to industry standards."

So far, at least 300 federal lawsuits have been filed in 12 states against BP and other companies involved in the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

The mishap took the LIVES of nearly a dozen workers and it's impacted the LIVELIHOODS of millions in the days since. In Louisiana, where seafood production is estimated to have an annual economic impact of nearly $2.5 billion, the industry is struggling to recover from the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Andrew Batt explains.

When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April, killing 11 and setting in motion the largest marine oil spill in history, fourth-generation shrimper David Chauvin received a phone call within hours. On the other end was a BP official pleading for Chauvin's entire fleet of shrimp boats to skim Gulf waters for oil.

David Chauvin: "He impressed upon me that this needs to be done. Somebody's got to do this. And I gave it some thought. If somebody's got to do this and it be done right then it should be the fishermen because we have more at stake to lose than anybody."

If the Midwestern grain belt is America's breadbasket…THIS is its seafood buffet. Thousands of square miles of estuaries ebb and flow throughout Louisiana's southern coastline. The sheltered confluence of Gulf salt water and fresh river water produce an ecosystem ripe for fish, crab, shrimp, and oysters. More than 70 percent of the Gulf's entire seafood production is harvested from these Louisiana waters – meaning any risk to the ecosystem is a threat to the region's economy.

David Chauvin: "Our Gulf is like a farmer's field. It needs to be cleaned and it needs be done right so we can get back to work. As time went on they started to close areas to commercial fishing and this became a way to pay the bills."

Chauvin concedes working for BP may not be the most popular option among local fishermen. But it may be the only one. Along the southern coast of Louisiana, the seafood industry and offshore oil production represent two of the region's largest employers – a role exacerbated by a national economic recession.

But some residents have concerns that fishermen are turning their back on a bread and butter industry for a quick injection of capital.

Charlotte Clerke: "People have had jobs for years and years and they are letting them go to work for BP. They don't realize that BP won't be there for them once the oil spill is cleaned up."

Stanley Sevin "It's BP oil why should I work to pick up somebody else's mess."

Charlotte Clerke and Stanley Sevin have been running a seafood and bait shop for Stanley's father, O'Neil, throughout the summer. Business is down but their bait shop is one of the few still open for customers.

O'Neil has sworn to not work for BP, instead venturing out on his aging shrimp boat amongst a limited number of fishing options.

O'Neil, whose family extended roots into brackish waters of the bayou hundreds of years ago, is unlikely to give up shrimping. But, his son Stan says the BP spill is the ultimate motivation to leave the bayou for good.

Stanley Sevin: "I only needed 10 percent to want to leave and the BP spill provided 1000 percent. I know I'm going to move now."

At Motivattit Seafood in Houma, Louisiana, the constant drone of workers shucking oyster shells may sound like business is booming. But oysters are vulnerable to changes in the ecosystem and Motivattit's patriarch sees trouble on the horizon.

Kevin Voisin, CEO Motivattit Seafood: "Oysters are vulnerable. They don't move. They're on the bottom. They can't escape."

Owner and CEO Kevin Voisin, whose ancestors have harvested oysters since arriving from France in the 1600's, argues the shelled delicacies will be hit harder than any other seafood.

Kevin Voisin, CEO Motivattit Seafood: "Actually the oil hasn't affected it the most. It's the fresh water diversion that was on full blast to keep oil away from the shore. Oysters need a certain level of salinity. What we're finding now is that there are significant mortalities in our oyster grounds."

According to Voisin, these prime oyster zones could take at least three years to recharge following the influx of fresh water from the Mississippi River.

Voisin: "We're probably 40 percent of where we were a year ago. We process 60,000 pounds or 180,000 oysters per day. That's down to 20 or 30,000 pounds per day now."

Fishermen still scrambling to grasp the severity of the oil spill's lasting affects may find solace in the growing trend to reopen much of the Gulf to commercial fishing.

Billy Nungesser, Plaquemines Parish President: "On one side of the river we found these shrimp. On the other side we were slammed with oil."

Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-Louisiana: "You might remember back in May when we requested to BP a long term food testing program. Five years of water testing and 20 years of long term seafood tests."

But Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal argues much more must be done to restore Gulf seafood to its rightful spot in the marketplace. The Louisiana Republican, alongside Parish Presidents, demands that BP pay for a long-term food testing program. The more than $300 million initiative would supplement ongoing state and federal tests for potential seafood contamination.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-Louisiana: "They haven't found anything wrong with Louisiana seafood during these tests. But we need to make sure the public is assured for years to come that it is safe to eat."

Consumer confidence has long defined the market value of many food products. According to local fishermen, that confidence is weaker than ever before.

David Chauvin: "Marketing, that is the worst thing about all of this. The price of shrimp in the last month has completely crashed. The phone is not ringing. My market has fallen off to nothing. People just aren't requesting Louisiana shrimp anymore. I don't know if there is a bottom anymore because we've dropped the price so low."

Low prices for shrimpers like David Chauvin are not benefiting the region's vast array of seafood restaurants. On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the Red Fish Grill is still open for business with a menu full of local seafood options: Shrimp, Crab, Oysters, and Redfish. But owner Ralph Brennan is troubled.

Ralph Brennan: "The cost of seafood has gone up anywhere from 15 to 35 percent. We have seen a reduction in business since June. I'm concerned about the long-term. Will visitors return to New Orleans or will they consider us a damaged brand."

Brennan, like many restaurant owners in New Orleans, was born and raised in Louisiana. The owner of four major seafood restaurants has testified to Congress on the integral role local seafood plays in the Louisiana economy.

He contends the region has never shied away from a challenge and always bounces back from adversity. But he makes a key distinction between the impact of Hurricane Katrina and that of the BP disaster. And even though the well has been capped, he fears the legacy of the worst oil spill in U.S. history could devastate the Gulf Coast for years to come.

Ralph Brennan: "I really can't think of a more uncertain time then this. We've had some ups and downs but we always felt we would come back and we did. This is different. This one scares me. I'm concerned there may be a long term residual affect like Katrina and we just don't need another one."


Tags: Alabama attorney general BP disasters economy Gulf of Mexico industry news oil oil spills safety seafood