Photo: lsgcp, Flickr
On Sunday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) closed fishing in federal waters affected by the massive oil spill in the Gulf, which continues to drift towards Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
This area of the Gulf is prized for its shrimp, oyster and blue-crab fisheries, currently at their peak spawning period. While approximately 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported -- meaning most seafood lover's dinner plates will not be directly impacted by the spill -- the area's fishery is significant. In 2008, more than 1 billion pounds of finfish and shellfish were harvested from the Gulf region. Experts predict that Louisiana's fishing industry alone could face a $2.5 billion loss.
"This is iconic American seafood," says Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute. "When you get past looking at the volume of seafood affected, you start looking at the lives impacted, and it's a tough row to hoe for those fishermen."
For shrimper Ray Brandhurst of Four Winds Seafood in New Orleans, the oil spill is a double blow. Brandhurst had to rebuild after his boat was severely damaged during hurricane Katrina. The difference between the two disasters, he says, is that during Katrina, the seafloor bottom was churned-up, oxygenating the water and providing nutrients.
"We saw unprecedented catches after the storm. Katrina may have affected everything else in our lives -- our homes and our businesses -- but the resource remained healthy. This, however, threatens our resources. We have some of the greatest estuaries in the world in our state. It's easy to rebuild a home or rebuild a boat, but when you're talking ecological damage, it's way more difficult to rebuild," says Brandhurst.
Oyster grower and processor Mike Voisin of Motivatit Seafoods, in Houma, says because the oil spill is slow moving, they've had time to prepare, and officials have closed areas in advance.
"Fish can move and get out of the way," he says. "It's the oysters that can't move, and crabs that get trapped in an estuary. And it's spring," he says. "There are a lot of juvenile larva, like fish and shrimp, in those estuaries where the oil is projected to hit."
Of great concern is the area's brand image.
"We're trying to get the message out that Louisiana is 400 miles wide along the coast, and only 100 miles of that is being impacted. After the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, the Alaskan seafood brand took a significant hit. Everyone thought that all the seafood was tainted. We've closed the fisheries well in advance [of the oil's arrival], and everything is being tested regularly," says Voisin.
NOAA is currently working with state governors to evaluate the need to declare a fisheries disaster, enabling federal aid to reach affected fishermen.