NEW ORLEANS (May 3, 2010)—As a giant oil slick lapped at southeastern Louisiana's ecologically sensitive coast, chefs, restaurant owners and seafood dealers were certain it would squeeze the state's $2.4 billion seafood industry. They just weren't sure how badly or for how long.
Federal officials shut down fishing for at least 10 days from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle on Sunday because of the uncontrolled gusher spewing massive amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
"It's called fear of the unknown," said Ricky Power, a suburban New Orleans seafood distributor. Power was certain, however, that prices will rise and availability will fall.
Among the unknowns: how much longer it would take oil giant BP to stop the flow of oil from the site of last week's offshore rig explosion; how successful would be the attempts to keep the oily water out of seafood habitat; and how the oil would affect reproduction of oysters, shrimp, crabs and finfish.
"This isn't just going to be a short-term thing," said Ben Wicks, owner and chef at Mahony's PO-Boy Shop, a neighborhood eatery in a converted shotgun house in uptown New Orleans.
Harlon Pearce, chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, said he applauded the federal government's decision to shut down fishing for at least 10 days to "ensure everyone that all seafood in the Gulf is of the highest quality and is safe to eat."
Award winning chef Donald Link, whose Herbsaint and Cochon restaurants in New Orleans are popular with tourists and locals alike, said another problem is the publicity surrounding the slick. He didn't want anyone to think that Louisiana seafood had disappeared or was unsafe, or that New Orleans restaurants were closed.
"I'm probably more concerned at this point with Louisiana getting a bad rap in the media and tourism dropping off than I am lack of seafood," said Link.
Clam growers in Cedar Key, a small island community that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico from Florida, echoed Link's concern, even though the oil remained far from their muddy waters. Fishing and boat tours proceeded as usual Sunday, and local oysters and clams were on restaurant menus, though owners warily eyed news from the spill to the west.
Hype over oil damage would be as economically destructive as the oil itself, said Brian Mattice, a clam grower and owner of Island Hoppers charter boat company.
Clams are crucial to Cedar Key, yielding $45 million in dockside and wholesale sales in 2007, the most recent numbers available. A drop in sales, potentially followed by contaminated water, would be catastrophic, Mattice said.
"Even if we get a little bit of oil and a little bit of media coverage, we're done," Mattice said.
That's not to say he's not worried about his supply — or his suppliers. His restaurants could survive a few weeks or even a few months without Louisiana seafood, he said, but many of the oyster growers and independent commercial fishermen who supply him were within the trajectory of the oil slick. They might not survive a prolonged closure.
The slick was threatening marshes and bayous east of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes — one of the state's most abundant oyster producing areas, as well as a source of shrimp, crabs and finfish.
"It's going to be a huge disaster for St. Bernard," said Kevin Vizard, owner and chef at Vizard's restaurant on Magazine Street in New Orleans. He ticked off a list of towns and communities — Hopedale, Shell Beach, Delacroix — that are havens for commercial and recreational fishing.
Rocky Dictharo, a seafood dealer in the Plaquemines Parish town of Buras, agreed. His family, he said, has fished the area for four generations. His brother still fishes. He said fishermen aren't just worried about the shrimp and oysters, but about the microscopic life they feed on. If much oil infiltrates the area, it could devastate seafood in that area for years.
"When you kill that food chain, nothing's going to come back to this area," he said.
Not far away Monday in Bayou La Batre, Ala., scores of shrimp boats sat idle because of the federal fishing ban. Many of the captains and crews are Vietnamese immigrants like Minh V. Le, who owns two trawlers.
Le said the situation is doubly hard for Asians who can't understand warnings and advisories issued in English.
"It's pretty much just a state of confusion right now. The information is not being passed out to them," Le said. "I'm confused about how I'm going to survive, and how my crews are. That's eight families."
The broader picture wasn't as bleak. Plenty of areas west of the Mississippi were unaffected and were not forecast to suffer from the spill, noted Ewell Smith of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion Board. Smith, who also applauded the decision to halt fishing, said the board was working to assure the public that Louisiana seafood was available and safe.
He noted that the closure did not affect the entire Gulf. The waters west of the Mississippi River are still open and represent more than three-quarters of Louisiana seafood production, he said.
"We have over 300 miles of coast," Smith said Friday. "We should be fine unless this thing gets totally out of control."
Associated Press writers Cain Burdeau in Boothville, La., Alan Sayre in New Orleans, Jay Reeves in Bayou La Batre and Jennifer Kay in Cedar Key, Fla., contributed to this story.