Gulf Seafood: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

New Orleans, La. –

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, as many of us searched for information about our city from afar, rumors of worst-case scenarios spread much faster than facts. One friend tearfully assured me that every oak lining Esplanade Avenue had been blown down, news supposedly transmitted to her by an eyewitness. The ridiculous notion that sharks were prowling Canal Street was actually told and retold, and for some out-of-towners the idea of a submersed New Orleans lingered for years.

For consumers and restaurant patrons, the true impact of the BP oil disaster on Louisiana seafood is similarly difficult to reckon.

Early in the crisis, we rushed to load freezers with local seafood, somber shopping sprees driven by fears that each purchase could be the last for some time. More recently, seafood buyers around the country have begun refusing gulf product, fearing contamination, and some restaurants now prominently assure their patrons that they use nothing from our region. But more than two months into this crisis, though oysters are now scarce, local markets remain well-stocked with Louisiana shrimp, crab and fin fish at fairly stable prices, while government testing has so far kept the commercial supply safe.

Like news of the worst in the Katrina aftermath, the anxiety and confusion over our seafood comes from the dread state of not knowing what will happen and how bad things will get. But while the focus has been on the immediate supply and who can get what tomorrow, others worry how things will be next year and beyond if more is not done to keep drifting oil from penetrating deep into Louisiana's coastal wetlands.

The wetlands are where so much of our seafood is produced, and it's all there in its most vulnerable state, according to Kerry St. Pe, a fisheries biologist and director of the Barataria-Terrebone National Estuary Program, a local conservation group. As bad as the damage to seafood appears now, he says, if the wetlands can be protected, we will still have a nursery to rebuild the fisheries for the future.

A recent boat tour of this rambunctiously productive environment served as a chilling preview of what could be if we allow it to be poisoned by the oil disaster. Local seafood industry leaders organized the trip, which was led by the Collins family over their oyster leases in Caminada Bay, just off Grand Isle, an area that appeared clean at the time but had been closed by the state because an oil sheen had been sighted there days earlier.

The oyster boat chugged around submerged oyster reefs while our hosts discussed the peril to a way of life in the largely family-based fishing business, where one generation often teaches the ropes to the next. BP may cut checks to cover losses, but if estuaries are befouled and future harvests are compromised, if the reputation of gulf seafood is lastingly tainted in the marketplace -- if people can't or won't eat our seafood and if the next generation can't earn its living fishing it -- then the Katrina-like fears that impelled those early, frightened runs to stock the freezer may well prove out.

Caminada Bay should have been swarming with commercial and recreational fishing boats on the day of our oyster boat tour. But very little was astir. The dorsal fins of porpoises arched out of the water occasionally, helicopters rumbled above, headed toward the rigs offshore, and no one was fishing but the pelicans.