Fishers get green light but many are mired in doubt about seafood safety


Commercial fishing reopened in areas east of the Mississippi River last week, but St. Bernard Parish shrimper Jerome Ronquille expects it’ll be a long time before he ventures out again to trawl the marshes outside of Hopedale.

“We’ve got the best seafood in the country, but I don’t trust my own product right now,” Ronquille said on a recent afternoon in Hopedale, just off a BP-paid shift patrolling for oil. “We don’t want to make other people feel sick.”

At the other end of Bayou la Loutre in Shell Beach, Darrell Pecar and George Barisich were preparing for their first outing, but they’re facing fundamental roadblocks: no one’s making ice, and no dock in lower St. Bernard is buying shrimp.

“You have a lot of local people who want them, but the processors that we do business with are not buying,” Barisich said. “If the processor says ‘no’ and this dealer says ‘no,’ then that means ‘no’ to me.”

More than three months of fishing closures after the BP oil spill have brought southeast Louisiana’s seafood industry to a near standstill. But even as the first reopenings are announced after federal and state testing showed the seafood is safe, reviving the supply is proving to be a slow process fraught with doubt and practical problems facing fishers and suppliers up the chain.

As the seafood industry begins a long-term struggle to manage public perception about its products, many of those closest to the state’s bountiful waters have emerged as the biggest skeptics.

Some fishers wonder how seafood could be safe as patches of oil and tar balls still appear in the marshes, no matter how many fish samples tested by the federal Food and Drug Administration show no levels of concern to humans. As contracted cleanup workers for BP, they get front-row viewings of the oil each day, and they’re convinced it’s far from gone.

Even for fishers who are confident in the quality of the catch, there are practical problems keeping them on the sidelines. Seafood buyers and docks are still mostly shuttered, despite last Friday’s reopening for shrimp and finfish by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, resulting in a silent standoff between fishers and their buyers. Docks in places like Shell Beach and Hopedale won’t reopen unless they can guarantee enough volume coming in to overcome the expenses of reopening.

Likewise, fishers won’t go out if there aren’t docks that will buy their product or supply them with ice for the trips. With open areas so limited, boats almost need a guarantee that the seafood will be plentiful and profitable.

“You’re going to pick and choose your battles, and you’re not going to go out unless someone tells you you’re going to kill it,” said Pete Gerica, a shrimp and crab fisher along Chef Menteur Highway who represents fishers in the Lake Pontchartrain area. “We’ve got people who constantly go out and trawl good money after bad, and there’s only so many times you can go out and keep taking those hits.”

Buyers such as David Palmer, who owns Lazy Boyz seafood dock in Hopedale, aren’t reopening because of concerns that the public just won’t trust the seafood.

“They’ve got so much bad publicity about it already, you can’t even get rid of the little bit you have,” said Palmer, who had 25 boats working for him last year but has had only three during the times the shrimp season was open earlier this year, in May and June. “It’s going to take years to come back. You’re not just going to jump back into selling crabs and shrimp like it was before this oil spill.”

BP’s vessels of opportunity program is of course putting a kink in the traditional economics of fishing. Faced with the choice of steady daily pay rates that can range as high as $2,000 per day, or the uncertain prospect of fishing for products that no one may want, most fishers have chosen to stay on as cleanup contractors.

“If BP keeps me busy, I’ll stay working with BP,” said Bryan Scheaffer, who along with his twin brother, Brad, has been deploying boom on seven-day shifts out of the Breton Sound Marina in Hopedale. “If they shut it down and they won’t have any work for me, I’ll definitely have to go back shrimping. But I’d never make as much shrimping as I do what they’re paying me.”

Scheaffer and others working out of Hopedale, like Ronquille, have also cut back on work they would have done to rig their boats to go shrimping.

“Everybody took their equipment off their boats, they’ve stripped their boats down to nothing to go work for BP, and it would cost us at least two to three thousand dollars to go rerig out boats up to go fishing,” Ronquille said.

The unintended consequence from BP’s vessels of opportunity program has spurred the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board to propose a plan for BP to pay fishers a 30 percent bonus on every pound of seafood brought to shore, to encourage more fishers to get out on the water.

BP has held off on making a decision on the incentive program until the well is permanently killed.

Harlon Pearce, chairman of the promotion board and owner of Harlon’s LA Fish, a seafood supply business in Kenner, said he has heard the skepticism from the fishers but stressed that education of the public about the science behind the FDA’s process is vitally important.

“What good does it do for me or the fishermen to say these things? He’s hurting himself, he’s hurting his markets and it will give him less of an ability to do what he does best,” Pearce said of the fishers’ skepticism over the quality of the seafood. “I understand people’s fear and the fear of the unknown, but we’re being told by reputable people not to worry, so I’ve got to follow the science.”

In order to reopen shrimping and finfishing east of the river, the state had to comply with a plan agreed to by FDA, NOAA and all Gulf states requiring seafood samples from each fishery to be tested by highly trained NOAA smell testers and also be chemically tested in one of the FDA’s labs.

The area has to be designated as free of heavy oil by federal and state agencies before testing could begin. So far none of the fish screened by the FDA have shown levels of contamination anywhere close to posing a human health risk.

Donald Kraemer, Deputy Director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, wrote in a letter last week to the state that all samples of shrimp and finfish tested were “significantly below the levels of concern.” The FDA has also said that based on past literature, the compounds in chemical dispersants are highly unlikely to pass into the tissues of fish and other seafood that humans would eat.

Last Friday’s reopening was also limited by nature, meaning more boats could be out on the water in coming weeks.

The middle of the summer, in July and early August, is usually the slowest time for the inshore shrimp season. Most of the interior marshes east of the river, including Lake Borgne, will remain closed to shrimping until Aug. 16, as part of a state fisheries management program to allow young white shrimp to grow to a marketable size.

That means shrimping is only open in the more distant offshore waters of Breton, Chandeleur and Mississippi sounds.

Those who harvest finfish with a trawl are subject to the same restrictions as shrimping.

Crabs would normally be a more popular commodity at this time, but the FDA has not finished testing crab samples from east of the river, leaving everything except Lake Pontchartrain and areas around Delacroix and Shell Beach closed to crabbing.

Barisich still plans to go out this weekend, hoping one of his buyers in Mississippi will be open for business. He’s more confident than most about the testing done by FDA, but he admits he’s going to take a look at the shrimp he catches before he sells them.

“If nobody’s messing with the results, or if the testing is not done for a directed result, you can’t argue with the science, but does that convince Joe Public to buy it?” he asked. “That’s the $64,000 question, but I’m not on the show tonight.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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