Image: shrimp boat
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
A shrimp trawler drags its nets Monday in Bastian Bay, near Empire, La., on the first day of Louisiana shrimp season since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
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updated 8/16/2010 1:51:06 PM ET 2010-08-16T17:51:06

Shrimpers returned to Louisiana waters Monday for the first commercial season since the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, uncertain what crude may still be in the water and what price they'll get for the catch if consumers worry about possible lingering effects from the massive BP spill.

The spill has put a crimp in the fishing industry in a state that ranks first in the nation in producing shrimp, blue crab, crawfish and oysters, a $318-million-a year business in Louisiana. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke planned to visit the state Monday to lunch with fishermen and talk to seafood industry representatives.

Perhaps the biggest fear is that some fisherman might try to sell oil-contaminated shrimp and scare consumers away again after prices crashed once already this summer.

"If you see oily shrimp, you got to throw them back over. Go somewhere else. It's all you can do. And you hope everyone else does the same," said Dewayne Baham, 49, a shrimper from Buras.

While fishermen worried about the effect of the spill on the new season, the final fix to the blown-out well at the heart of the problem remained at least a week away.

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Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's point man on the spill, told reporters Monday that it will be roughly seven days after he gives the order to proceed with the so-called bottom kill before the well is dead.

But Allen doesn't know when he'll give that order. Scientists and engineers from BP and the federal government are looking at two options to relieve pressure inside the well before the bottom kill, in which heavy mud and cement are pumped in from below.

One option would involve building a pressure-relief system in the temporary cap that has kept the oil from gushing into the Gulf for more than a month now. The second option would involve swapping out that equipment for a different model. Allen said both options would lengthen the time necessary to kill the well, but declined to estimate exactly how long the whole process will take.

"I'd rather have a credibility problem by not having a timeline than having a timeline and having to change," he said.

Image: U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Paul Zukunft
P.J. Hahn  /  AP
U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Paul Zukunft inspects shrimp while on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico Saturday.

Louisiana shrimp prices rose soon after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering the spill that eventually spewed 206 million gallons (780 million liters) of oil from BP's blown-out well. The price spike was fed by fears that the shrimp would soon be unavailable.

Despite state and federal assurances that seafood reaching the market was safe, demand dropped and prices crashed a month ago, said Harlon Pearce, a seafood dealer and head of the state's seafood promotion board.

Ravin Lacoste of Theriot, said he believes his fellow shrimpers know better than to turn in a bad catch.

"If you put bad shrimp on the market — we in enough trouble now with our shrimp," Lacoste said. "You might can go in the closed waters and catch more shrimp. But it ain't worth it."

Pearce did what he could over the weekend to allay fears about safety. On Friday, he was in a group that set out with several fishermen on a test run around Grand Isle and Barataria Bay.

They trawled several areas, pulling up nets that held shrimp, mud, jellyfish or driftwood — all without the signs or telltale smell of oil.

Seafood testing begins when there's no longer visible oil in a particular area. First, inspectors smell samples for oil. Then comes testing at federal or state laboratories. To reopen seafood harvesting, the samples must test below Food and Drug Administration-set levels of concern for 12 different potential cancer-causing substances. BP also used chemical dispersants to break up the crude, but the government has not yet developed a test for the materials in seafood.

Shrimpers also are concerned about how much they'll be able to make on their product.

"I don't think people are worried so much about the resource, but the price," said Rusty Gaude, fishery agent for LSU Sea Grant Program.

And fishermen need to know what waters are open.

Slowly, more and more waters closed because of the spill are reopening. However, shrimping remains forbidden in federal waters off Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and most of the catches have come off Texas and Florida, said Roy Crabtree, the regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service's southeast region.

Associated Press writers Lauran Neergaard in Washington, D.C., Harry R. Weber and Tom Breen in New Orleans, video journalist Mark Carlson in Buras, and photographer Gerald Herbert in Grand Isle contributed to this story.

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

Video: Fishermen return to Gulf as shrimp season opens

  1. Closed captioning of: Fishermen return to Gulf as shrimp season opens

    >>> right now commercial shrimpers are back in the waters. for the start of the shrimping season. it is the first time since the oil disaster. the fear is that no one will want to buy what is being pulled out of the gulf. federal and state officials ins cyst that the shrimp reaching the market is safe to eat but there are still concerns that are real out there.

    >>> everyone is waiting to see what size of catch, the condition of the catch and will anyone buy it? how strong of a market is it? the government has been testing the seafood for several weeks now. the commerce secretary is visiting today. he is visiting seafood processing plants and having plenty of seafood to eat. everyone is anxious to see what kind of catch they will get and who will buy it.

    >> what is the latest on the bottom kill? what's the latest moving ahead?

    >> the relief well is still suspended. scientists come up with more testing of the well to find out exactly what kind of pressures to expect once they begin and how to relieve some of the pressures if they build up too high inside the well what will bp do to relieve some of the pressures. that's what they will be going on now. it will take about four days to intersect the well. that will be this weekend when the operation finally comes to a close. now we have a depression forming out in the gulf as well. we don't know yet how that might delay the patrol operation.

    >> when will the shrimpers start to come back in? they are not allowed to fish yet in the federal waters.

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