Say “Gulf Coast” these days, and two things likely come to folks’ minds: hurricanes and the BP oil spill. But many in the Gulf are hoping Americans, particularly restaurant operators and chefs, will soon think about something else: seafood.
The Gulf Coast seafood industry is in full-on recovery mode nearly three years after the Deepwater Horizon oilrig explosion caused hundreds of millions of gallons of oil to spill into Gulf waters. While industry insiders say seafood sales are back at pre-spill levels in the five Gulf States, hesitation to use the Gulf’s products remains among foodservice professionals across the rest of the U.S.
“Early on, 80 percent of people were concerned about the safety [of the food],” says Mike Voisin, CEO of Motivatit Seafood, based in Houma, Louisiana. “Having a pipe spew out oil on the bottom corner of the TV station for however many days the event lasted … doesn’t bode well for your product.”
“The challenge is the perception that’s lingered from the Deepwater Horizon,” adds Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. “We knew it would take time to overcome that.”
But Voisin, Smith, and other Gulf Coast seafood professionals hope that time has come and gone. To help quash any lingering doubt, seafood representatives from the five states that comprise the Gulf Coast shoreline—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida—have banded together as the Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition. The Coalition, assembled through grant money, aims to promote and create demand for Gulf Coast seafood.
The Coalition has a seemingly tall order on its hands. According to Coalition statistics, some 30 percent of consumers still state that the oil spill affects their decision whether to buy Gulf Coast seafood—even though all scientific testing has shown that the shrimp, oysters, scallops, lobsters, crabs, and finfish are perfectly safe.
“First and foremost, from the outset of the incident, safety has been the primary, No. 1 driver in everything we do, and still is today,” Smith says. “Without the safety, nothing else matters. When they suggested we close our waters, we embraced that. When they opened the waters, we embraced that as well, of course. The FDA commissioner, [Margaret] Hamburg, said the seafood from the Gulf is the most-tested seafood in the world.”
The seafood industry in the Gulf is also rebounding from 2010’s massive closures. Voisin, who is the Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition’s chairman, says that at the peak, as many as one-third of Gulf fisheries were closed in response to the oil spill. He adds that 40 of the 44 processing plants in Louisiana closed for the year after the spill.
Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries in Bon Secour, Alabama, and vice chairman of the Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition, says these kinds of closures—combined with the loss of harvesters and processors who voluntarily shut down business to receive claims from BP—took Gulf Coast seafood off the radar for many restaurants and distributors.