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Despite oil spill, Louisiana's seafood catch is fine, officials say

NEW ORLEANS (May 06, 2010- The Times-Picayune)—The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, New Orleans chefs, seafood dealers and grocers united in shouting one message from the rooftops: Louisiana seafood is safe to eat.

Some New Orleanians are saying: message received.

"It's kind of scary to think about oil in our seafood, " said Christine Slakey, whose shopping list on Wednesday at the Winn-Dixie on Tchoupitoulas Street included shrimp and fresh fish to make fish tacos for Cinco de Mayo. "But our health regulations are pretty strict, so if they're willing to sell it, I'm willing to buy it."

Slakey, 23, said friends in Florida are hosting "Farewell to Gulf Seafood" parties.

But those in the industry are concerned that parties such as these and media reports are exaggerating the situation, and they worry about misconceptions about the state of the industry as a whole.

Although the potential for damage from the spill is massive, 77 percent of the state's Gulf fisheries are west of the Mississippi River, away from the oil, according to the seafood board. The state still has plenty of seafood, both in storage and being harvested now from unaffected areas.

Donald Rouse, president of Rouse's Supermarkets, has installed signs at his stores' seafood counters touting the safety of the product.

Louisiana seafood "is a big part of our brand, " he said.

"I was in stores over the weekend and customers were questioning the safety of seafood and making comments such as 'I came in today to get my shrimp in case there's not any next week.' We reassured them that we will be buying shrimp."

Rouse said that the company is monitoring the oil spill daily and that purchases of certain seafoods it normally gets from east of the river, where fishing has been restricted as a precautionary measure due to the oil spill, have shifted to the west.

"Ninety percent of our crabs come out of Lake Pontchartrain, so we're praying that the lake stays safe also, " he said.

Just as Rouse is working to keep local shoppers informed about seafood safety, the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board and others are working to get the message out on a national level.

"We are trying to get out ahead and make sure there's no confusion with the national media, " said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. "We jumped on this hard. We learned our lessons with Katrina."

"Louisiana seafood is alive and well and healthy and safe, " said Harlon Pearce, who owns Harlon's LA Fish, chairs the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board and is on the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council.

Seafood is a $2.4 billion industry in the state, with Louisiana providing a third of the domestic seafood in the contiguous 48 states, Smith said, noting that the state is the nation's No. 1 producer of shrimp, oysters, blue crabs, crawfish and alligator, and the No. 2 producer of finfish.

One worry for Smith and Pearce is that their message about food safety is being drowned out.

"If (the national media) are not distorting it, they sometimes get it confused, " Smith said of recent media reports.

Take for example Sunday's announcement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that fishing is restricted in federal waters for at least 10 days in a 6,800-square-mile area between the mouth of the Mississippi River and Pensacola Bay.

"I saw headlines that said Gulf fisheries are closed, " Smith said. "A defined area is closed, and no fishing should happen in that area. But look at that line going west to Texas. There's no harm there."

Along those same lines, a story in The Daily News Journal in East Rutherford, Tenn., noted: "Enjoy your boiled crawfish now. With the oil spill in the Gulf Coast spreading and the ecological damage still unfolding, there might not be any later."

Pearce noted that west of the Mississippi River, all fishing cycles are normal. Crawfish farming and fishing is done further inland and so are uaffected as well.

Both Pearce and Smith emphasize that the closure of waters east of the river is precautionary, and they support it.

"Our challenge is to keep the marketplace alive for the seafood that can be harvested, " Smith said, so fishers can continue to make a living. "For thousands of fishing families, ... a 23 percent hit (the percentage of Gulf waters now closed) is a big hit."

Pearce, whose business supplies restaurants in the New Orleans area, said "some are buying heavily just to make sure they're covered. But this is not our heavy time of production. Shrimp season doesn't start until the third Monday in May." On the east side of the river, it traditionally starts at the end of June.

"I probably have 100 dozen softshell crabs on hand right now. Crabmeat's plentiful, " Pearce said. "From January to March, when we had all the bad cold fronts coming through, we had more problems getting product than we do now. ... Shrimp production is picking up, crab production is picking up, and the oysters are still there."

For Louisiana seafood lovers, however, the bad news may be that seafood prices will rise, he said.

"When we get into the (shrimp) season, prices shouldn't be as low as they were last year, but that's not a bad thing. It's good for the fishermen."

Wednesday morning, Miguel Medina, director of operations for the Robert's Fresh Market at Claiborne and Carrollton avenues, drew prices on a white sheet of paper covering a table by the front door. Bins of boiled shrimp, crawfish and crabs would cover the paper. But Medina said his customers are worried about availability, not safety.

"Right now, the seafood we're selling the most of is crawfish, which has nothing to do with this, " he said, but he added that like others in the business, he is watching the spill carefully.

Chef Chris Montero of Bacco said he too is concerned about misconceptions among locals and tourists and has educated his wait staff so they can help share accurate information.

"What really surprised me the most was a fisherman on TV who said it's toxic seafood, " Montero said. "Here's a guy who is purely a fisherman speaking off the cuff. The fact is there is not a single case of tainted seafood.

"From the seafood supply end of it, things are not as bad as we may have expected, " Montero added on Tuesday.

While south Louisiana residents wait in limbo for the next developments, Smith has a suggestion: "The best way consumers can help us right now is go out and dine or go to the store and buy Louisiana seafood, to help shore up the markets that we're taking a 23 percent hit on."

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