Seafood industry promoting safety message

Published 1:27 am Friday, May 14, 2010

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — With oil still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, leaders of the state’s seafood industry met Thursday to discuss ways to get out the message that Louisiana seafood is safe to eat and available, if not as abundant as before an April 20 offshore rig explosion.

The Louisiana Seafood Promotion Board adopted a draft budget for the use of $2 million granted to the agency by BP. And members made clear they will be asking for more from the oil giant, for the board to promote the quality and safety of Louisiana seafood, and for fishermen, dealers and processors whose futures become increasingly murky with every day that the oil continues to foul the Gulf.

“We’ll need significantly more funds to educate nationally,” said Harlon Pearce, a seafood dealer and chairman of the state-created board, which is comprised of seafood processors and dealers, fishermen and restaurateurs.

Pearce outlined plans that included contracting with a New York public relations agency to get the message out.

Kevin Voisin of Motivatit Seafood in Houma said the board needs to improve its use of Internet social media and passed on a suggestion of his customers: providing talking points for waiters and waitresses to pass on to customers wondering about Louisiana seafood.

Voisin said the message is getting out to Louisiana consumers but some of his customers outside of the state are fearful.

“In Texas, California I’ve got a lot of customers saying they don’t want Gulf seafood and that scares me,” he said.

In an abundance of caution, prime Louisiana oyster grounds and fishing areas have been closed by the state, even though they have not been contaminated by the oil. Board members unanimously backed the closings at Thursday’s meeting, saying it’s part of the effort to assure the rest of the world that Louisiana seafood is safe.

But the closures have hurt many.

Availability of Louisiana oysters is about 40 percent of what it was, Pearce said. It’s 40 percent, at most, for crabs, he added. Finfish are available at about 60 to 70 percent, in part because of closed state and federal waters and because many fishermen are preparing for a shrimp season set to begin Monday.

But the potential shrimp harvest is in question because of an unusually cold winter and because of recent diversions of freshwater into coastal areas, done by the state in hopes of staving off the encroachment of oil.

Even for those seafood customers who get the message about safety, availability can be a problem. Gary Bauer, a board member and crab meat dealer from Slidell, said all of his sources for processed crab meat are within the closed areas. He’s been having workers pick meat from crawfish — freshwater crustaceans unaffected by the spill and currently in season.

But he had to turn away a major customer who wanted crab meat, he said. “I canceled one of the three biggest orders I had,” he said.