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Fishing for Answers

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, Louisiana Gulf Coast fishing and tourism industry members wonder what’s in store for 2011.
By Cheré Coen

The crowds headed home after a long rowdy weekend in New Orleans, but a line lingered outside the Acme Oyster House, a restaurant famous worldwide for its Gulf oysters on the half shell. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has left many people wondering about the safety of Gulf seafood, but the demand for Acme’s oysters remains uninterrupted in New Orleans.

wetlands

Above: An aerial view of wetlands near Houma. Most of the Deepwater Horizon’s oil reached barrier islands, but fresh water released to keep oil out of marshes has been a threat to some species, including oysters. Houma Area CVB photo

In Title: All of the waters off the coast of Louisiana have been reopened for recreational fishing. Cheré Coen photo

Below: Stererl Frilot spent his life fishing for Louisiana seafood and insists it is safe for consumers. Cheré Coen photo

frilot

Louisiana residents have gotten the message that their local shrimp, oysters, crabs and fish have been tested more than any other American food this year, according to Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. In fact, more than 20,000 tests were conducted on the Gulf’s bounty during the summer alone, Smith said. The well was permanently sealed and declared “effectively dead” on Sept. 19.

Louisiana restaurants have reported a resurgence in customers after a slow summer, but the trick, industry professionals claim, is to convince the rest of the country that seafood is safe to eat and the Gulf has the welcome mat out for tourists.

Struggling to rebound

It’s a long, winding path from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. Outside of Houma, about an hour south of the city, the oyster harvesting begins. Mike Voisin of Motivatit Seafoods is a seventh-generation owner of the family business, and since the oil spill began, he’s watched neighboring oyster companies close up shop and leave.

Motivatit specializes in shipping oysters, especially their selective Gold Band brand, out of state to cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. It took two years for the company to rebound from Katrina, Voisin said. Then, the Gulf was hit by hurricanes Gustav and Ike. But the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the hardest disaster of all.

“We took the biggest hit we’ve ever taken,” Voisin said. “It will take us at least five years to get back to where we were. Deepwater Horizon has created more harm than the storms of the past few years.”

The problem is not so much the oil spill, but the fresh water released to keep the oil out of the marshes and the Mississippi River, Voisin said. This fresh water intrusion to the oyster beds proved fatal in some cases.

“Very few oysters have been oiled,” Voisin added.

Chefs from across the nation have visited Louisiana in an effort to convince the public that the seafood is safe.

“People listen to the chefs,” Smith said. “They’re the great ambassadors.”

Smith and Voisin admit that problems may exist for the seafood industry in the coming years. Watching the estuaries and examining the long-term effects of the oil spill may reveal problems down the line.

“I’m very cautiously optimistic,” Smith explained. “Will there be surprises a year from now? We don’t know.”

For now, Smith remains adamant that all Gulf seafood on Louisiana tables, as well as the 30 percent of all domestic seafood caught off Louisiana’s shores sold to stores throughout the country, is safe.

“Out of all of the thousands of tests performed on our seafood, no dispersants have shown up since July 19,” Smith said.

Louisiana tradition

Stererl Frilot grew up on Four-Mile Bayou with no electricity and roads. He had to row his pirogue, a Cajun canoe, to attend school. Naturally, he followed in his ancestors’ steps and spent his life shrimping, fishing and catching alligators in the Louisiana marshes and swamps.

He likes to remind people that his Cajun accent is the real thing, and that spending long hours in the hot Louisiana sun catching seafood made for an ideal life.

“It’s a feeling that you can’t express,” Frilot said. “You’re in control. You got nobody to push you. You’re your own boss.”

Frilot is retired now, but he doesn’t hesitate to enjoy Louisiana seafood or impress upon people that the state’s fishermen are suffering. Young people are choosing other careers as well, he said, leaving a gap behind retiring fishermen like Frilot. Ironically, many have chosen working on offshore oilrigs for the better wages and consistent paycheck.

“If you make $50 a day fishing and you can make $100 a day on the oil rigs, you’re going to leave it,” Frilot said.

Currently, Louisiana is the largest producer of oysters, blue crabs and shrimp in the United States, with 69 percent of all domestic shrimp harvested from the Gulf waters, making up a $2.4 billion industry for the state.

For tourists visiting Louisiana, the delectable Cajun and Creole cuisine incorporating fresh Gulf seafood is one of the biggest draws, according to Smith.

“The music, the food, that’s what drives people here,” Smith said. “And seafood is the main component.”

Like Acme Oyster House, Mister B’s Bistro, a French Quarter landmark specializing in Creole cuisine with an emphasis on regional seafood, remains popular. Tourists and locals alike packed the hip restaurant on a recent weeknight enjoying the deep-fried Louisiana soft shell crab that’s served on creamy corn macque choux and finished with jumbo lump crabmeat with a lemon butter sauce. Others enjoyed the New Orleans take on shrimp and grits with bacon wrapped around jumbo Gulf shrimp with stone ground yellow grits and red-eye gravy.

“We have been fine, and business is as usual,” said Julie Brignac, Mr. B’s marketing director. “We really believe that the seafood has been checked and double-checked and triple-checked, and it’s perfectly safe.”

Cheré Coen is a new contributor from Lafayette, La.

Nov/Dec 2010 Issue

 

BEFORE YOU GO

About 27,000 tests were conducted before press time on Gulf seafood and all results indicated that the seafood was safe.

For visitor information, contact the Houma Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 688-2732 www.houmatourism.com.

To visit Houma in Terrebonne Parish, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. View a list of offices to serve you.

Order free information about Louisiana through online Reader Service: http://southern.ai-dsg.com.

crab

Mister B’s Bistro in New Orleans believes in the safety of the Louisiana seafood it serves, including this deep fried Louisiana soft shell crab with jumbo lump crabmeat.
Cheré Coen photo


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