Reporting from Venice, La. — President Obama served plates of barbecued gulf shrimp to guests at his 49th birthday party Aug. 9. But Kindra Arnesen, who runs a shrimp boat with her husband here in southern Louisiana, isn't nearly ready to eat what comes out of the tepid gray waters.
When news first hit of the massive oil blowout 50 miles southeast of here, Arnesen filled her freezer with shrimp. She has no intention of eating fresh seafood until she stops hearing from her fellow fishermen about blobs of oil on the sea bottom and tiny droplets of dispersed hydrocarbons in the water.
"I'm not going to sell somebody something I wouldn't feed my own kids, and we're not eating it," Arnesen said. "They can eat burgers for awhile."
The $272-million seafood industry that is as much a part of Louisiana as Mardi Gras is struggling to regain traction in a market that is showing little appetite for local seafood after BP's busted well gushed an estimated 4.1 million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico.
Despite the reopening of most gulf waters to commercial fishing, many fishermen say that early catches of shrimp and oysters have been meager, prompting fears that the oil spill generation may have been largely wiped out. Just as big a challenge, though, has been getting the troubled fishing industry back up and running.
The opening of white shrimp season Aug. 16, much anticipated after months of fishing closures, was almost a nonevent — the majority of shrimp boat owners were still working on the BP cleanup, many earning $1,500 a day or more, which at today's depressed shrimp prices can be more lucrative than fishing.
Local seafood buyers bereft of supply are closing their docks to keep losses from multiplying, leaving shrimpers who couldn't get hired by BP with few outlets to sell their catch. Meanwhile, national frozen fish buyers are driving down prices, threatening to eviscerate the gulf seafood industry's future markets by signing new contracts for Asian and Latin American shrimp.
"Definitely, the image of seafood has been damaged badly," said Ewell Smith of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. "We had 24-hour, real time video of a BP gusher coming up from the bottom of the gulf. That image, along with the oiled pelicans, has just been sealed in the minds of consumers. It will take a long time to undo that."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal estimated that the hit to the commercial fishing industry from the oil spill could cost the state $1.4 billion in losses spread throughout the economy.
Famed New Orleans restaurants like Commander's Palace and the Acme Oyster House have been reassuring nervous patrons and scouring the gulf for oysters — half of the state's oyster beds have been destroyed, in large part when state and federal officials opened levees and released fresh water to help push spilled oil away from the coast.
"People are scared to eat the seafood here," said Michael Regua, executive chef at Antoine's in the French Quarter, the restaurant that invented Oysters Rockefeller. "I get daily calls: 'Is it good? Is it hard to get?' Yes, it's good. And it's very hard to get."
Federal and state officials insist that thousands of tests have shown that the seafood is safe, and have reopened 85% of the state's waters to commercial fishing. Farther offshore, 78% of the U.S.-controlled gulf waters are open.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the federal Food and Drug Administration have run tests on thousands of water samples and fish plucked from the reopened areas.
"To date, absolutely zero samples have revealed anything remotely close to being a concern. There are barely detectible levels of hydrocarbons, and when they are detectable, they're way below normal background levels," said Randy Pausina, assistant state wildlife and fisheries secretary.
Officials from the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency told Congress last week that they had also looked for one of the leading chemical markers in the 1.8 million gallons of dispersant poured in unprecedented volumes into the gulf, and had not detected a problem.
"We are confident that based on the current science, the likelihood for bio-concentration in fish is very low, and should it occur, the toxicity of those occupants would be very low," Deputy FDA Director Donald Kraemer told the House energy and environment subcommittee.
But researchers at Tulane University announced this month that they had tentatively identified trace amounts of oil and possibly dispersant in tiny orange blobs that have been found under the shells of crab larvae — an important food source for other fish — collected since May from across the Gulf Coast.
Kraemer admitted that federal scientists had tested only for a relatively harmless, detergent-like component that is an easy marker for the dispersant Corexit, and had not developed tests for other components.