Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who doubles as President Barack Obama’s point man on Gulf Coast oil spill recovery, is pressing America’s armed services to consume as much Gulf seafood as possible.
Navy Capt. Beci Brenton said Monday that Mabus has talked with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the secretaries of the Air Force and Army, and his staff has talked to the Defense Commissary Agency, which operates a worldwide chain of stores for military personnel, making the point “that we should be buying Gulf Coast seafood.”
In a meeting Monday with Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, Mabus reaffirmed his commitment to using the tools at his disposal to help the Gulf seafood industry recover from the damage the BP oil spill has done in reality and perception. The board is gearing up for a large-scale national marketing campaign, with $30 million in BP money and millions more in federal dollars, to reassure restaurants and markets across the country that Gulf seafood is safe.
“He expressed what we wanted to hear: He is in favor of the federal government buying seafood from the Gulf,” said Smith, who said he would like to see Gulf seafood as the choice throughout the public domain, “whether it’s the military or prison systems or school systems.”
Smith met with Mabus as a representative of the Gulf Coast Ready 4 Takeoff Coalition, an alliance of businesses and government entities from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida working for economic recovery in the Gulf. Smith was joined at the meeting by Mayor Sam Jones of Mobile, Ala., and Mayor-elect Ashton Hayward of Pensacola, Fla.
BP is giving the Louisiana marketing board $30 million to spend over the next three years to promote Gulf seafood, and Smith said a request for proposals from agencies that would craft the marketing campaign will be going out shortly. The Louisiana board also will be getting a share of the $15 million the Commerce Department has given to the Gulf State Marine Fisheries Commission to divide among the Louisiana board and its sister groups in the other Gulf states, including Texas.
Ralph Hode, fisheries disaster recovery coordinator for the commission, said the money will be used for direct marketing, web-based marketing, supporting testing efforts in the states to ensure the quality and safety of the seafood, and helping fishers to have their products certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as coming from a sustainable fishery. That last can be an invaluable marketing tool. Wal-mart, for example, plans to buy all of its wild-caught fresh and frozen fish from MSC-certified fisheries beginning next year.
Smith said the industry is facing a kind of chicken-and-egg — or perhaps fish-and-roe — conundrum in getting back on its feet after the trauma of the BP spill.
“It’s a combination,” Smith said. “You’ve got people who aren’t wanting (Gulf seafood) in other parts of the country, and that’s throwing the market a little sideways, and then fishermen sensing that and wondering if they are going to have a place to sell to.”
While the number of fishers back in the water has risen in the past month, Smith said only 40 percent to 50 percent of the fleet is back on the job, which he blamed on the uncertainties surrounding the claims process being administered by Kenneth Feinberg, and continuing market concerns among fishers.
Then, with less supply, Smith said, some demand goes unmet and buyers look elsewhere, perhaps not to return for some time to come, if ever.
“We lose continuity of supply in the marketplace,” and, as a result, Smith said, “we lose our market share across the country.”
Smith said that while unprecedented levels of testing of seafood post-spill have proved its safety, “I think we are going to have to test for along time to constantly reassure the consumer that the seafood is safe.”
The still unanswerable question is the long-term effect of the oil spilled and the dispersants used to break it up, effects that might not show up for years. “We don’t know that answer and I don’t think there’s a scientist that could give you a definitive answer,” Smith said.
On his way into the Russell Senate Office Building Monday, Smith passed — and took some photos on his phone — of protesters, one with a placard reading, “Hold Chinese Accountable for Toxic Drywall.”
It struck a chord with Smith.
“Our biggest challenge aside from hurricanes and oil spills has been imports,” he said, particularly from places like China, which, he said, from children’s toys to drywall to fish-farms, puts no premium on safety.