Video: Fishing industry braces for spill’s ripple effect

  1. Closed captioning of: Fishing industry braces for spill’s ripple effect

    >>> to see you, jay!

    >>> back now from venice , louisiana , with more on one of the points nbc 's mark potter made earlier in the broadcast, news that federal officials have now banned all fishing for at least ten days in federal waters in four states. this is devastating news for the people who make their living in the fishing industry . and it can also have a noticeable impact on the american dinner table and restaurant menu. here's nbc 's chief environmental correspondent, anne thompson .

    >> reporter: this is something eric melrhine never thought would happen on his boat. tossing back blue crabs that his family has fished for four generations.

    >> does he stay in louisiana ?

    >> no, he doesn't. that crab right there, we were selling today. tomorrow, he'd be on a plate in baltimore.

    >> reporter: this is the start of the ripple effect of this disaster. in baltimore, wholesalers see the impact of fewer louisiana oysters, crawfish, crabs and shrimp.

    >> we're already hearing that shrimp have gone up a couple dollars a pound on our end, so it's probably going to be a substantial jump.

    >> reporter: the bounty from louisiana 's waters produces nearly one-third of the seafood america eats. at the moment, almost a quarter of the state 's fishing areas are closed. they are east of the mississippi and in the path of the spreading slick. those west of the river are still open and they yield the vast majority of the seafood. safe for now, but could be impacted if the winds and tide shift. federal officials are testing water and seafood for contamination, though today it closed fishing in federal waters throughout the spill area, the government insists what's commercially available now should not pose any health risks.

    >> while we can eat them, we will. who knows when we'll get them again.

    >> reporter: louisiana law requires seafood distributors to trace the origins of the fish. that says the manager of galatore's in new orleans should give customers confidence.

    >> we know who the fishermen was, if we really want all that information.

    >> reporter: the information crabber eric melrhine wants to know is much harder to get. you and i may pay a few more dollars for the shrimp and crab and oyster that we love, but these fishermen could pay with their jobs, their homes, and their culture, lester .

    >> you know, anne, you and i hear the same thing talking to these fishermen. the frustration is, nobody can tell them anything, how long this is going to go, how long. in the long-term, what are they talking about doing?

    >> some of them are talking about going to work for bp and laying booms out there, but others say, that's like working for the enemy. a lot of these fishermen live hand to mouth and what they want to know, if they can't fish, then who's going to help them hold on to their homes, and as they say, it's part of their culture. it's their way of life . they've got saltwater running through their veins.

updated 5/4/2010 1:18:16 PM ET 2010-05-04T17:18:16

As a giant oil slick lapped at southeastern Louisiana's ecologically sensitive coast, chefs, restaurant owners and seafood dealers were certain it would squeeze the state's $2.4 billion seafood industry. They just weren't sure how badly or for how long.

Federal officials shut down fishing for at least 10 days from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle on Sunday because of the uncontrolled gusher spewing massive amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

"It's called fear of the unknown," said Ricky Power, a suburban New Orleans seafood distributor. Power was certain, however, that prices will rise and availability will fall.

Among the unknowns: how much longer it would take oil giant BP to stop the flow of oil from the site of last week's offshore rig explosion; how successful would be the attempts to keep the oily water out of seafood habitat; and how the oil would affect reproduction of oysters, shrimp, crabs and finfish.

"This isn't just going to be a short-term thing," said Ben Wicks, owner and chef at Mahony's PO-Boy Shop, a neighborhood eatery in a converted shotgun house in uptown New Orleans.

Harlon Pearce, chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, said he applauded the federal government's decision to shut down fishing for at least 10 days to "ensure everyone that all seafood in the Gulf is of the highest quality and is safe to eat."

Fears of a bad rap
Award winning chef Donald Link, whose Herbsaint and Cochon restaurants in New Orleans are popular with tourists and locals alike, said another problem is the publicity surrounding the slick. He didn't want anyone to think that Louisiana seafood had disappeared or was unsafe, or that New Orleans restaurants were closed.

Image: Brenna Kelsey, Felix's Seafood Restaurant in New Orleans
SEAN GARDNER  /  Reuters
Brenna Kelsey of Boston blows on hot "Charbroiled Oysters" on Sunday at Felix's Seafood Restaurant in New Orleans.
"I'm probably more concerned at this point with Louisiana getting a bad rap in the media and tourism dropping off than I am lack of seafood," said Link.

Clam growers in Cedar Key, a small island community that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico from Florida, echoed Link's concern, even though the oil remained far from their muddy waters. Fishing and boat tours proceeded as usual Sunday, and local oysters and clams were on restaurant menus, though owners warily eyed news from the spill to the west.

Hype over oil damage would be as economically destructive as the oil itself, said Brian Mattice, a clam grower and owner of Island Hoppers charter boat company.

Clams are crucial to Cedar Key, yielding $45 million in dockside and wholesale sales in 2007, the most recent numbers available. A drop in sales, potentially followed by contaminated water, would be catastrophic, Mattice said.

"Even if we get a little bit of oil and a little bit of media coverage, we're done," Mattice said.

That's not to say he's not worried about his supply — or his suppliers. His restaurants could survive a few weeks or even a few months without Louisiana seafood, he said, but many of the oyster growers and independent commercial fishermen who supply him were within the trajectory of the oil slick. They might not survive a prolonged closure.

The slick was threatening marshes and bayous east of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes — one of the state's most abundant oyster producing areas, as well as a source of shrimp, crabs and finfish.

"It's going to be a huge disaster for St. Bernard," said Kevin Vizard, owner and chef at Vizard's restaurant on Magazine Street in New Orleans. He ticked off a list of towns and communities — Hopedale, Shell Beach, Delacroix — that are havens for commercial and recreational fishing.

Concerns over food chain
Rocky Dictharo, a seafood dealer in the Plaquemines Parish town of Buras, agreed. His family, he said, has fished the area for four generations. His brother still fishes. He said fishermen aren't just worried about the shrimp and oysters, but about the microscopic life they feed on. If much oil infiltrates the area, it could devastate seafood in that area for years.

Video: Gulf fishing restricted, livelihoods threatened "When you kill that food chain, nothing's going to come back to this area," he said.

Not far away Monday in Bayou La Batre, Ala., scores of shrimp boats sat idle because of the federal fishing ban. Many of the captains and crews are Vietnamese immigrants like Minh V. Le, who owns two trawlers.

Le said the situation is doubly hard for Asians who can't understand warnings and advisories issued in English.

"It's pretty much just a state of confusion right now. The information is not being passed out to them," Le said. "I'm confused about how I'm going to survive, and how my crews are. That's eight families."

The broader picture wasn't as bleak. Plenty of areas west of the Mississippi were unaffected and were not forecast to suffer from the spill, noted Ewell Smith of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion Board. Smith, who also applauded the decision to halt fishing, said the board was working to assure the public that Louisiana seafood was available and safe.

He noted that the closure did not affect the entire Gulf. The waters west of the Mississippi River are still open and represent more than three-quarters of Louisiana seafood production, he said.

"We have over 300 miles of coast," Smith said Friday. "We should be fine unless this thing gets totally out of control."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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