How Others See Our Seafood

New Orleans, La. – Ask local advocates for Gulf seafood what's the biggest issue they're facing right now, in light of the BP oil disaster, and they'll say "public perception." But fishermen and their supporters in Louisiana have been fighting a perception battle long before the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. This other fight seems destined to last much longer, but in an unexpected way the current crisis in the Gulf may actually provide some new leverage on it.

First though, the struggle at hand. Testing has shown that the Gulf seafood hitting our docks is as safe as ever. Yet consumers around the country now question its integrity. Behind those questions is discomfort, and, well, that's not a very good way to begin a meal. An Associated Press poll conducted in August found that some 54 percent of Americans are not confident that Gulf seafood is safe to eat. By the way, that's about the same percentage of Americans who told these pollsters they weren't confident Gulf beaches were safe for swimming either.

So the fight for the state's multi-billion-dollar seafood industry is locked on changing public perception. That means marketing, and marketing takes money. BP recently decided to provide $13 million to monitor the effects of its oil disaster on Louisiana seafood over three years. That's far short of the $173 million the state has asked from BP to fund a more comprehensive seafood certification and marketing plan. That's what Louisiana officials say is needed to prove that our state continues to produce the safest seafood anywhere. Test results won't do the job on their own - people around the country have to hear that Gulf seafood remains the healthy, flavorful treasure it has always been.

And that gets to the other, older, more entrenched perception fight for Gulf seafood, in particular its abundant, nearly year-round shrimp harvest. No shrimp fishery in the world is more abundant than ours here in the Gulf, with our massive though endangered wetlands coastline providing the nursery for plump, beautiful white and brown shrimp.

Yet long before the BP crisis, the Louisiana shrimping fleet has been in a state of steady decline, trodden by the sheer volume of imported seafood, stuff that largely produced at industrial-scale farms in Asia and Latin America. Louisiana still leads the nation in domestic shrimp production, but it now that haul amounts to less than five percent of the shrimp Americans actually eat. Amid this crush of imports, Gulf shrimp has increasingly become a bit player. Prices for product fall even as costs for Louisiana fishermen rise, and many in this largely family-run business must make a living some other way.

To turn that around, Gulf seafood advocates have for years now been working to pull local product from the anonymity of the imports, to accentuate the flavor and character of shrimp caught in the wild rather than collected from the roiling ponds of aquaculture concerns. The goal has been to make the term "Gulf shrimp" a promise of quality over commodity on menus and grocery store ads.

The BP oil disaster has clearly short-circuited this effort. But with greater marketing muscle, maybe the situation can be turned on its head. Gulf seafood still is about quality, and now there is strenuous testing to prove it. The origins of imported seafood commodities remain murky, while now more than ever, when you eat Gulf seafood you know just what you're getting.