In Parts Of La., Recreational Fishing Reopens

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Across the bayous of coastal Louisiana, people are again casting and reeling in redfish, specked trout and flounder. The state reopened recreational fishing in most coastal waters after tests showed that seafood from areas of the gulf not heavily contaminated by oil is safe to eat.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Louisiana lifted the ban on recreational fishing in its state waters last week. That delighted fishermen, who've been grabbing their fishing poles and heading to their favorite bayous and coves.

Still, as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, federal officials think the state acted prematurely.

(Soundbite of splashing)

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Just off the coast of Cocodrie, Louisiana, a two-hour drive south of New Orleans, Ken Hunter is back on the water after several weeks of suffering without his favorite pastime.

Mr. KEN HUNTER: Everything was shut down so nobody could come out.

SHOGREN: So how does it feel to be out here?

Mr. HUNTER: Oh, wonderful. It's fantastic.

SHOGREN: And the fish are biting.

Mr. HUNTER: Got some redfish and speckled trout.

Mr. CHRIS PROSPERY(ph): And flounder.

SHOGREN: That's Hunter's buddy, Chris Prospery.

(Soundbite of rustling)

SHOGREN: Prospery opens a cooler and pulls out a gorgeous flounder.

Mr. PROSPERY: And you stuff that with crab meat and it's really, really delicious.

SHOGREN: Nobody knows how many people have been reeling in fish since Louisiana ended its ban on recreational fishing last week. It did so in more than 80 percent of state waters, the areas within three miles of the coast.

Robert Barnum, secretary of Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, says before he made that call, the state had sampled hundreds of fish, shrimp and oysters and found no evidence of contamination.

Secretary ROBERT BARNUM (Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Louisiana): So, it only made sense that we let folks go back to fishing.

SHOGREN: Barnum says he can change course if needed.

Mr. BARNUM: And literally we have teams on the water 24-7. And if there is a change in the situation - heavy oil intrusion, a situation that we have not seen - we can close immediately, and we'll do it.

SHOGREN: But federal officials say the state jumped the gun. I asked Megan Scott from the federal Food and Drug Administration what that means for people who've been catching fish in recent days.

Can they be assured, in your perspective, that the fish they caught is safe to eat?

Ms. MEGAN SCOTT (Food and Drug Administration): Not from FDA's perspective, no, because we have not done the testing to ensure that.

SHOGREN: She says that the problem is the state ignored an agreement it had with the federal government. The plan was that once the surface oil cleared, they would test the water to make sure it was clean, and if it was, then they would test seafood and come to a joint agreement about whether it was time to reopen recreational and commercial fishing.

None of those steps happened, Scott says, before the state went ahead on its own and opened recreational fishing.

Ms. SCOTT: We certainly know and acknowledge and understand that people are very eager to get back out there and to be fishing again and it's an important part of people's lives, but we also want to make sure that the seafood that they're catching is safe.

SHOGREN: But boosters for Louisiana's seafood industry, including Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, say the federal government was moving too slowly. They're urging the FDA now to quickly give its approval to lift the ban on commercial fishing in state waters.

Harlon Pearce owns a big seafood processing center and is the chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. He predicts some closed commercial fishing areas will reopen within a week - with FDA's blessing.

Mr. HARLON PEARCE (Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board): They won't say no, I can tell you that, because our testing has been very thorough.

(Soundbite of noisy restaurant)

SHOGREN: At a restaurant in Cocodrie, a bunch of out-of-work fishermen who now work for BP contractors are eating lunch. Shrimper Chris Griffin says he's beginning to believe there may be an end to this tragedy.

Mr. CHRIS GRIFFIN (Shrimper): It's good. We might get our seafood industry back and get back to normal.

SHOGREN: And do you think you'll be shrimping soon?

Mr. GRIFFIN: Not soon, but hopefully one day.

SHOGREN: Griffin says he's already missed his main shrimping season for the year.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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