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Top Story: On the Brink

The catastrophic oil spill threatens the entire Gulf seafood industry

By Christine Blank
July 01, 2010

Lurking beneath the oil-slicked surface of the Gulf of Mexico are more than 50 seafood species teetering on the brink. The trickle-down effect can be seen onshore, where seafood-related wholesalers, processors, retailers and restaurants scattered across four states face an uncertain future. What local seafood they were able to purchase in May and June won't last through the year, and tourism has already been curtailed by images of oil-soaked birds, fish and turtles. The future of the entire Gulf seafood industry, from fishing boats to restaurants, is in the crosshairs of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

While the initial disaster was fast - British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon oil rig caught on fire April 20 and collapsed a day later, killing 11 rig workers - the aftermath has been a long, drawn-out battle. Scientists and oil-company officials have debated how much oil is actually spewing into the Gulf: As of press time, the estimate had almost doubled to 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, up from the previous estimate of 20,000 to 40,000 barrels. This man-made environmental catastrophe will affect livelihoods and Gulf sea life for decades to come. Particularly for the people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama - where Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc just five years ago - those who work in the industry are outraged and heartbroken. Some suppliers and processors are already shutting down due to lack of supply and soaring prices.

"This year, we finally got the price of Gulf shrimp back up, almost to where it was 10 years ago. In the last eight years, we have had four hurricanes, imported shrimp killed our market and the price of fuel was $4 per gallon. We are a resilient people, but this might be the end," says Dean Blanchard, owner of Dean Blanchard Seafood in Grand Isle, La. Blanchard is one of the nation's largest domestic shrimp vendors, selling 12 million pounds a year to U.S. grocery chains.

Like many other seafood companies, the future of Blanchard's business is now uncertain. U.S. seafood buyers are holding their breath, knowing that the spill could be devastating for years. 
The region supplies a third of the nation's seafood harvest, accounting for 1.27 billion pounds of finfish and shellfish in 2008, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), worth $659 million in revenue.

Scientists are trying to determine what will happen to shrimp, oysters, blue crab and dozens of other Gulf species, but it is not an easy task. Future fish and shellfish reproduction depends on how the oil impacts Louisiana's estuaries and deep-water spawning grounds.

Researchers and seafood suppliers estimate that Gulf shrimp stocks may lose a year of production, if shrimp larvae are significantly impacted by oil this summer, and affected oyster stocks could be impacted for two years or more. Since Gulf deepwater finfish, such as red snapper and tuna, have longer life spans, their stocks can take a few years to recover if damaged by oil.

"It really depends on the intensity and length of time this thing goes on. It is really scary in my mind. Exxon Valdez was somewhat limited, compared to the potential for this," says Dr. Tom McIlwain, professor emeritus with the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL) in Ocean Springs, Miss. McIlwain and other GCRL researchers are studying ocean ecology during and after the spill, compared to the typical Gulf of Mexico ocean life.

Still, the public perception problem is perhaps one of the most prevalent for Gulf Coast fisheries and the tourism industry. Some Gulf suppliers notice decreased demand for their products and believe that is because consumers think Gulf seafood is - or will be - contaminated by oil. In reality, Gulf seafood is being tested before it reaches the market by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), NOAA, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, and other agencies.

Fishing for shrimp and oysters, two of the most prolific species in the Gulf, has already been severely curtailed by area closures. By mid-June, fishing closures had impacted 36 percent of the Gulf shrimp fishing area, according to NOAA. The Gulf region accounts for around 73 percent of the nation's wild shrimp catch at 188.3 million pounds harvested in 2008, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. In addition, the Gulf states lead in U.S. production of oysters (approximately 20.81 million pounds in 2008) and blue crab (49.15 million pounds).

"Everybody is apprehensive about what is happening. It creates a personal fear about the future for all of us," says David Veal, executive director of the ASPA. Shrimp processors were operating at only about 10 percent of typical early June capacity, according to Veal. Still, Mississippi was planning to open its season in mid-June, along with western Louisiana and Texas's summer openings.

"That will provide a source of shrimp, but [the market value] is going to depend 
on the size of the shrimp," says Veal.

If oil filters into the estuaries of Louisiana and other Gulf spawning areas, shrimp production could be 
significantly reduced for at least a year, says McIlwain.

"Early June through early July is one of the most intense spawning periods in the Gulf. If oil gets into the marshes or estuaries, it can affect a whole year of production," McIlwain says.

Randy Pausina, assistant secretary for fisheries with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, is also concerned about the oil's impact on future shrimp supplies.

"Our fear is that the shrimp go offshore to reproduce. Shrimp could be wiped out for a whole generation. We might not see 
white shrimp, brown shrimp, crab, red fish and other fish," says Pausina.

While wild shrimp buyers look to Texas and Florida to make up for the Louisiana and Mississippi supplies, they recognize that those supplies are much more limited than the rest of the Gulf. Some restaurateurs who want to use only Gulf shrimp may have to use imported product to keep shrimp on the menu.

Gulf oyster businesses have been significantly harmed by the spill. John Tesvich, president of oyster processor Ameripure Processing Co. in Franklin, La., and chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the oyster beds were closed by early June.

As a result, some restaurateurs are looking for alternative supplies or may decide to take oysters off their menus, according to Tesvich. Additionally, Ameripure and other oyster-related businesses may have to close down this summer, at the height of the Louisiana oyster season. "You will see massive closures of oyster businesses. By the end of June, our doors will be closed," says Tesvich. Ameripure had closed by press time, which forced Red Lobster to take oysters off its menu. If the situation improves, Tesvich hopes to be processing again 
this fall.

"Under the best-case scenario, we are looking at opening in September and October, if the Louisiana and Mississippi public reefs open," says Tesvich.

Despite the damage to the shrimp and oyster markets, there have been no reports of contaminated oysters, or of any other Gulf seafood. "Oysters are one of the most sensitive of the seafood products affected by the oil, so there are numerous tests, including taste tests. The Department of Health and Hospitals is out there every day, seven days a week, tracking any impacts," Tesvich says.

If oil does get into the prime oyster areas, which are located in the reefs outside Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, according to Tesvich, oyster harvests could be impacted for around two years.

However, the oyster leases are at least 4 feet down, so they may survive an oil slick on the surface.

"There may be some tar balls that sink to the bottom, but oysters generally don't die unless oil gets on the oysters themselves," Tesvich says.

At the other end of the spectrum, fish with a longer life span will take longer to return if poisoned by the oil. Red snapper, tuna and speckled trout are among the finfish that may be affected for more than a year, if oil affects larvae of those species. The commercial landings of snapper in the Gulf (except for Mississippi) totaled 2.37 million pounds in 2008, according to NOAA.

"If you take out two years of recruitment on a snapper or something like that, that is 10 years that it takes for that void in the population to go all the way through the system and get back into a good year class," says Pausina.

The future of fish species depends on where the oil flows. "So many of our species, such as tuna, spawn offshore and then we have some that spawn much closer to the barrier islands," says McIlwain.

While seafood suppliers and scientists are uncertain about the long-term impacts of oil on seafood in the 
Gulf, Louisiana wants BP to pay for the multi-year 
research needed.

Several state agencies, including the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, recently petitioned BP to fund a 20-year, $457 million 
seafood safety and certification program.

"The plan would test for hydrocarbons and other substances. It would be for testing of all seafoods, everywhere in our systems," says Pausina.

In addition to multi-agency seafood testing, a large part of the 20-year plan is marketing and consumer initiatives to get the word out that Louisiana seafood is safe to eat.

"It took us two to five years to get our market back after Katrina. We are estimating that this is going to be a lot worse. They are showing oiled animals on TV," says Pausina.

"We believe a long-term, sustained effort is necessary if we are going to impact consumer attitudes. We must be able to convincingly make the case that our seafood product is safe and of high quality," wrote Robert Barham, secretary of the LDWF and other state officials in the letter to BP.

Several universities and other organizations are also studying the impact of the oil spill on the ocean ecology and on seafood. University of Georgia-Athens researchers have already detected decreased levels of oxygen and high methane readings in the area around a deepwater oil plume near the original spill site.

"We are seeing unprecedented levels of methane, [as much as] 10,000 times the normal level," says Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

As a result, it may take a long time for naturally occurring microbes to break down the oil, or dead zones may occur. "There is really no way to get dispersed oil out of the water. It is the job of these organisms to get it out, or it settles to the bottom," says Joye.

While UGA researchers do not know the oil spill's long-term impact on seafood species, Joye has no doubt there will be damage.

"The system as a whole has been significantly perturbed by this event. When you alter the carbon cycle, it is very likely that it will work its way up the food chain," says Joye.

The location of the Gulf of Mexico also makes its marine life susceptible to damage for years to come. "It is not a closed body of water, but it is an isolated body of water. It [the oil] is going to circulate around and around, and have a long-term impact," says Joye.

Meanwhile, the University of Southern Mississippi's GCRL has maintained a 30-year database of Gulf ocean water, soil, plankton and other marine ecology. The lab is collecting ocean samples throughout the oil spill, and will continue thereafter, to track any changes.

"We can evaluate the impacts of this long term, because we know what is normally there. This will really give us a handle on the long-term impact," says McIlwain.

Ecological changes aside, it's likely that as Gulf shrimp supplies decrease, seafood buyers and distributors expect shrimp imports to increase.

"About 90 percent of the shrimp we eat in the United States comes from outside the United States," says Dr. Jeffrey Lotz, chairman of the Department of Coastal Sciences at GCRL.

As areas of the Gulf continue to be closed to fishing, wild shrimp prices are rising and Lotz expects U.S. retailers and restaurants to import more farmed shrimp.

Eastern Fish Co. in Teaneck, N.J., which imports around 60 million pounds of shrimp annually, has not altered its purchasing volume because of the oil spill. While company president Eric Bloom said he is "sickened" by the spill's impact on Gulf seafood, the company may have to increase imports in the future. "If there is a tremendous gap [in shrimp supplies], it will have to be covered," says Eric Bloom, president of Eastern Fish.

Shrimp aquaculture production, however, will likely not be ramped up in the short term, in the United States or in the large shrimp-producing regions, such as Vietnam and China. Overseas shrimp suppliers would likely just alter their customer base temporarily. "Maybe the shrimpers overseas would sell more to the United States rather than to Europe," says Lotz.

Domestic shrimp aquaculture is minimal, and Lotz does not expect that to change as a result of the oil spill. Although there was interest in farmed shrimp production in the United States in the 1990s, the price of shrimp was higher at the time, and competition from imports was not as intense, says Lotz.

Even as researchers and environmental organizations unveil the impacts of the massive oil spill on the Gulf ecology and its seafood species, those in the industry are simply fighting for their livelihoods and a big part of their culture. They cling to the hope that closed harvesting areas will be re-opened and clear of oil, and that American consumers will one day have the same confidence in Gulf seafood that they have always had.


Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.


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