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Gulf Oil Spill Shuts Down 50 Percent of Louisiana's Oyster Production

Gulf Oil Spill Shuts Down 50 Percent of Louisiana's Oyster Production
Gulf Oil Spill Shuts Down 50 Percent of Louisiana's Oyster Production

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Jeff Swicord

As British Petroleum continues to try to cap its leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. officials have banned fishing from the Mississippi River east to Alabama and Florida.  Louisiana's seafood industry is suffering losses estimated in the millions.  But some in the industry caution that while closures will hurt, they will not be catastrophic.

Sal Sunseri is co-owner of the P&J Oyster Company in New Orlean's historic French Quarter. For 134 years it has supplied restaurants in New Orleans and the U.S. with fresh shucked oysters.

"We do about 30-35,000 oysters in a day," he said.

P&J is a part of Louisiana's $2.4 billion a year seafood industry, the largest in the U.S.  Fifty percent of the state's oyster production is shut down, there but for now prices remain steady. "There is already a drop in supply.  Because, on the east side of the river, that is one of the most productive estuaries for oysters in the world.  So, we are taking precautionary measures and of course shutting it down.  And everything on the west side is what we are drawing from now right now," he said.

Sunseri emphasizes that the fishing closures east of the Mississippi River are just precautionary.  To date, there has been no evidence of contamination in the river from the oil spill.

"The kind of broken marsh that you see out there where you can see the grass and all out there, that's an estuary," said Peter Garica, vice chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Marketing Board.

He also is a commercial crabber and fisherman.  He says if the shut down continues on the east side of the Mississippi, Louisiana's' seafood industry will survive,  because 70 percent of the state's fish and shellfish come from the west side of the river. "Fishing is going to go on whether it be on the west side of the river or the east side of the river," he said.

Garcia says the recent dip in supply will be temporary.  He thinks it is partially due to consumers overbuying out of fear. "It's putting a false sense on the market right now that everybody has this big flashing yellow light flashing, caution, caution, caution, so people are buying stuff in high volume than they usually buy.  Even at the farmers markets they are buying more," he said.

Bourbon House Seafood Restaurant in the French Quarter specializes in local seafood.

Managing partner Steve Pettus says he has had no problems getting fresh seafood from his suppliers.  His concern is that the public knows that the seafood he serves is fresh and safe. "Because everyone of the oysters that come in we tag them as to where they are coming from," he said.

He emphasizes the industry goes to great lengths to document where seafood is caught or harvested.

Each 23 kilogram bag of oysters he receives has a tag that marks the area it came from. Bourbon House displays the numbered area on a chalk board behind the oyster bar for their customers to see.

"I am not worried about quality at all.  Because again I count on not only on the regulatory agencies that determine the quality of the water in which these products are grown.  I count on the reputation of our purveyors that we have known, longer than I have been alive. We have been doing business with them," said Pettus.

British Petroleum plans to plug the leaking oil well with an experimental well cap.  The seafood industry is watching closely and hoping for success.

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