ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The BP spill halted fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, the Gulf is back open for fishing, except for a small section near the wellhead.
But as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, the question is whether or not people will eat the seafood.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The Gulf of Mexico is known for its bounty - blue crab, shrimp, grouper, tuna, oysters, just about anything you'd need to cook up a fine gumbo - but ever since oil tainted a portion of the Gulf's fishing grounds, the seafood has been a tough sell.
Even though much of the oil has been cleaned up, the future is still murky for people who make a living plying Gulf waters.
Mike Voisin is a seventh-generation Louisiana oysterman.
Mr. MIKE VOISIN (President, Motivatit Seafoods): Once it was capped, you know, everybody let out that proverbial sigh of relief, like, whew, we're through this thing. Well, we weren't, and we still aren't.
ELLIOTT: Voisin is president of Motivatit Seafoods, an oyster processing company in Houma.
(Soundbite of machinery)
ELLIOTT: His workers are shucking oysters mostly from Texas these days.
Before the spill, Louisiana produced half of the oysters sold from the Gulf. Voisin's business was down 60 percent after the spill and has been slow to recover. The state's fisheries are projected to lose $74 million this year from the lingering impact of the oil spill.
Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries secretary Robert Barham.
Mr. ROBERT BARHAM (Secretary, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries): People are hesitant to buy Gulf shrimp or Gulf product coming out of this oil area.
ELLIOTT: Most oyster grounds are back open, but they're not producing nearly what they did before, in part because of damage from freshwater state officials flushed out of the Mississippi River to hold the oil at bay.
But Voisin says the main problem is that consumers are afraid.
Mr. VOISIN: The brand for the seafood community is the biggest challenge that we're faced with.
ELLIOTT: A recent survey of restaurants around the country conducted by Greater New Orleans Inc. shows just how bad the perception is. The economic development group's president, Michael Hecht, says twice as many people now ask about the origin of seafood.
Mr. MICHAEL HECHT (President and CEO, Greater New Orleans Inc.): The implication, of course, is that they're asking about whether it's from the Gulf or whether it's Louisiana seafood.
ELLIOTT: He says 50 percent of people surveyed nationally now have an unfavorable view of Louisiana seafood. That's a huge swing from a 73 percent favorable view before the spill.
They plan to fight back with a national ad campaign paid for with BP money.
The state of Alabama is already doing that with this new Serve the Gulf campaign.
(Soundbite of TV ad)
Unidentified Man: We would never shift, sell or serve anything we wouldn't feed our families first. You have our word on that because this is more than what we catch every day. It's who we are.
ELLIOTT: The federal government is also trying to get the word out.
Mr. ERIC SCHWAAB (National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): Test results have been unequivocal. Gulf seafood is safe to eat.
ELLIOTT: That's Eric Schwaab, head of fisheries at NOAA.
At the agency's lab in Pascagoula, Mississippi, sensory analysts spend their days bending over Pyrex dishes and smelling the fish inside for the slightest whiff of oil.
Then, they'll have a taste. Seafood samples are also chemically analyzed for hydrocarbons and the dispersant BP sprayed on the oil slick. NOAA's Walt Dickoff says they've analyzed more than 5,000 samples and all have passed at margins 100 to 1,000 times below levels of concern.
Mr. WALT DICKOFF (Division Director, Fisheries, NOAA): This is the most tested seafood in history. I'm completely confident to say it's not contaminated.
Ms. ANNE ROLFES (Founding Director, Louisiana Bucket Brigade): I'm not eating the seafood, and I really think there are questions about its safety.
ELLIOTT: Anne Rolfes is founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental group that helps citizens collect their own samples.
She says their testing has found oil and heavy metals in Gulf seafood at levels the FDA says is not of concern, but Rolfes says she has a different definition of tainted.
Ms. ROLFES: It shouldn't be considered normal to have the presence of oil in your shrimp and to have heavy metals in your oyster. And what I fear is that we're creating this new normal where you have oil in your seafood and nobody blinks an eye.
ELLIOTT: Oyster processor Mike Voisin says restoring trust will take time. It took several years to recover from Hurricane Katrina, he says, and expects to overcome this man-made disaster too.
Mr. VOISIN: We're not shy about portraying who we are. And in five years, we've been knocked down a few times. But we're getting back up. We're coming.
Every time you get knocked down, Voisin says, you come back even stronger.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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