Win McNamee/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke (center) takes a close look at Gulf Coast shrimp at the Lafitte Frozen Seafood Corporation in Lafitte, La., on Aug. 16. Many in the industry are now concerned with combating the perception that Louisiana seafood isn't safe after the BP spill.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke (center) takes a close look at Gulf Coast shrimp at the Lafitte Frozen Seafood Corporation in Lafitte, La., on Aug. 16. Many in the industry are now concerned with combating the perception that Louisiana seafood isn't safe after the BP spill. Win McNamee/Getty Images
This week, shrimpers returned to the waters off Louisiana for their first season since the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April.
Shrimpers are concerned about how many shrimp they will get and how good they will be. But the shrimpers and others whose livelihoods depend on the Gulf have another worry: that the Louisiana seafood brand has been sullied by BP oil.
While patrons at Big Al's restaurant in southeastern Louisiana chow down on fresh, local seafood, in the other parts of the country, Louisiana seafood is not always so popular right now.
In Motivatit Seafoods' vast oyster-processing facility, there's a long line of women shucking fresh oysters. The company's owner, Mike Voisin, says too many people outside the Gulf fear that seafood like his isn't safe.
"For over a hundred days they've thought 'seafood-oil,' that's what we produce in the Gulf. It's been emblazoned or branded into their minds," he says. "I mean, it's almost like a mark in their head."
Delinking those words — "seafood" and "oil" — is the challenge now facing Ewell Smith, who heads the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.
"Right now, our biggest challenge, as we look forward, is the branding of Louisiana seafood. Our brand has taken a major hit," Smith says.
Thirty percent of all domestic seafood in the continental U.S. comes from Louisiana; the state is No. 1 in oysters, shrimp, blue crabs and crawfish.
Smith says he knows of suppliers who have been selling to customers for 20 years, but they are no longer buying. Some restaurants have even posted signs proclaiming, "We don't serve Louisiana seafood."
"They're using an oil spill against us. ... That's a tough pill to swallow," Smith says.
He says their actions are not just tough, but also unfair.
"We're working with EPA, FDA, NOAA, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the Department of Health and Hospitals — all those agencies right now are testing at unprecedented levels," he says.
And so far the seafood has gotten a clean bill of health. Indeed, Smith says that, right now, Louisiana seafood may be the safest in the world because of all the testing.
But with or without testing, marketing professor Jonah Berger of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania says the perception remains "seafood" and "oil."
"Psychologists call these things 'cognitive associations' or 'semantic networks' in people's heads, and the idea is when we think about certain concepts, certain ideas, certain products, other things come to mind," Berger says.
He suggests that most people didn't have a mental image of themselves happily eating seafood from the Gulf before the spill. "Right now, the only association is a negative one, and so it's going to be much harder for that association to disappear," Berger says.
Creating a new, positive image, he says, will take awhile. In the meantime, he recommends harnessing the sympathy people feel toward residents of the Gulf and encouraging them to buy Gulf products.
If that and all other strategies fail, he says, marketers could abandon the Louisiana brand and sell their products generically.
That idea makes locals bristle. New Orleans restaurateur Ralph Brennan says Louisiana seafood is simply the best.
"The quality of the product, the freshness of the product, the taste of the product — you know, many of the products that come in from outside the United States have preservatives and other things, and I don't think you'll find that with Gulf seafood," he says.
Price pressure from imports has been a factor for the domestic seafood industry. The Gulf spill sent more restaurants and other buyers to imported products. Voisin says winning those customers back will be tough.
"What you normally have to do is discount. You have to go out there and say, 'OK, I'll give you this ... instead of for $1 [like] before, I'll give it to you for 75 cents.' And then maybe you'll buy it," he says.
Danny Babin of Gulf Fish faces the same challenge. As he shows off the 80-pound tunas lying on a slab, Babin talks about the hit the seafood industry has taken — and what BP ought to do to about it.
"BP is doing an excellent job of promoting their company right now, while at the same time they could be saying, 'We're eating seafood down here everyday, and we know, because we are on it everyday, that the seafood is safe.' And I would like to see BP do more of that," Babin says.
BP has put aside some money to promote Louisiana seafood, but it will likely take more than cash to rebuild the brand. It took about five years after the Exxon Valdez spill before Alaskan seafood rebounded in the market. Louisiana residents can only hope it won't take that long this time.