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Gulf seafood industry fighting for survival

(May 12, 2010 - SeafoodSource)—The Louisiana seafood industry is struggling this week with revolving fishing closures and reduced catches of shrimp, oysters, crawfish and other species due of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which is nearing its one-month anniversary.

However, some Louisiana fishing boats took to the water on Tuesday after the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) reopened Zone 2, which extends from the eastern shore of south pass of the Mississippi River to the western shore of Vermilion Bay.

The LDWF had announced fishing closures in Zone 2 on 8 May, then reversed the decision two days later.

“We threatened to sue them, and they re-opened the area. The state keeps closing us down. I usually have 76 employees and am down to eight or nine now,” Dean Blanchard, owner of Dean Blanchard Seafood in Grand Isle, La., told SeafoodSource. Blanchard handles around 12 million pounds of Gulf shrimp annually.

While Zone 2 is currently open, shrimpers don’t expect that to last. “[The re-opening] is going to be short-lived. The oil is already making it on the shore in Terrebonne Parish,” said Lance Nacio, owner of Anna Marie Seafood in Dulac, La., which supplies around 150,000 pounds of shrimp annually. This week, Nacio is taking his shrimp boat to assist BP with the controlled burn of oil in the Gulf.

Shrimp processing plants in Louisiana and Mississippi are running at 5 to 10 percent capacity of what they normally would be this time of year, said David Veal, executive director of the American Shrimp Processors Association in Biloxi, Miss.

As Gulf shrimp supplies have tightened, prices have risen. Peeled and deveined 50s-60s that would normally be wholesaling at USD 3 to 3.50 per pound are now around USD 3.95, according to Veal. Peeled and deveined 16-20s that would be priced at USD 6 per pound are now around USD 7.

However, Veal is optimistic about the shrimp season. “Our normal season wouldn’t have been in full production until late May,” he said. “We are still hopeful that we are going to have a good season, assuming that we are going to get this [oil spill] under control.”

Still, Gulf Coast states are battling public perception about the safety of seafood and beach closures.

“We were experiencing the best cobia season, but there are people within our driving distance that were canceling trips because they heard reports that the entire north shore of the coast is closed,” said Bruce Craul, secretary and treasurer of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, in Tallahassee, Fla., at a press conference on the oil spill.

“It is important to stress that Louisiana seafood is safe to eat. The state continues to work closely with LDWF field biologists and DHH [Department of Health and Hospitals] to ensure all seafood harvested are safe for consumer consumption,” read a LDFW statement.

Meanwhile, some seafood companies are taking part in the numerous class-action lawsuits currently being filed against BP, Halliburton, Cameron Industries, and rig owner Transocean. For example, Hillman Shrimp and Oyster Corp. in Dickinson, Texas, one of the Gulf Coast’s largest oyster processors, is one of 13 plaintiffs in one of the suits.

Others are submitting damage claims directly to BP, and getting paid on them.

“BP seems to be keeping their word. Fishermen have made claims and processors have filed claims, and have gotten cash,” said Veal.

However, Nacio doesn’t believe class-action suits are the way to go. “We need to pull together. I have to hope that BP compensates us for our losses,” said Nacio, who has submitted a claim to BP.

By Christine Blank, SeafoodSource contributing editor 

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