When federal authorities this week reopened another section of US waters in the Gulf of Mexico that had been closed because of the BP oil spill, some people might have expected local fishermen to celebrate a return to normality.
But for many in the industry, the gradual return to work after months of enforced inactivity serves as a reminder that they now face an onshore battle: winning over a market made sceptical by so much negative publicity.
Sales of Gulf Coast seafood have plummeted, not just as a result of bans but also because many consumers want nothing to do with a product they associate with the oil spill. Local processing plants say clients have cancelled orders, and some US restaurants are promoting the fact their dishes do not contain gulf seafood. As Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, says: “The brand has been trampled on.”
Even locals usually acutely loyal to regional produce seem to be wary. According to a study published this week by the University of Southern Mississippi, in mid-July only 35.9 per cent of Gulf Coast residents agreed with the statement “I will mostly buy Gulf Coast shrimp,” compared with 45.5 per cent just five weeks earlier.
Barack Obama, US president, this week attempted to restore the region’s image at a reception with the New Orleans Saints American football team, where he announced that Louisiana shrimp was back on the menu. “With the ongoing reopening of gulf fisheries, we’re excited that fishermen can go back to work and Americans can confidently and safely enjoy gulf seafood once again,” the president said.
But many officials insist any lasting remedy for the gulf’s image as a top producer of seafood must involve science.
Roy Crabtree, south-east regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, argues that while it is still impossible to measure the long-term effects, seafood tested in the gulf has so far been clean. “You will see more and more areas reopened … we are over the worst,” he said.
At the height of the spill, 149,000 sq km of the gulf were closed. Now, some 13,323 sq km have been re opened to finfish fishing. The area that remains closed covers about 22 per cent of the US exclusive economic zone in the gulf.
Mr Crabtree said federal and state authorities had agreed on a common protocol for contamination testing. He expected Louisiana waters near the state line with Texas to reopen next, followed by fishing grounds off Alabama’s coast.
Locals say that winning back the US gulf’s market share in seafood, worth about $3bn a year before the spill, will require money and long-term advertising. Almost everyone agrees that BP should pay for it.
At the New Orleans Great American Seafood Cook-Off this week, Ralph Brennan, who owns several eateries in the city, said: “One of the things we ought to do is start with how much BP is spending now on their own PR campaign and ask them to match that for us.”
Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s governor, has already called on BP to bankroll a $173m (€135m, £111m) five-year seafood testing and marketing campaign. He has yet to receive an answer.
BP says it is working “very closely” with the gulf states and that, with regard to funding promotional campaigns, “these issues will be under discussion”.
Local producers are focused on survival. Lance Nacio, a shrimper who works out of Dulac, Louisiana, says his customer base has remained strong and that his clients are “on-board and anxious for me to get back into fishing”.
Others have not been so fortunate. Kim Chauvin, who runs the Louisiana-based Mariah Jade Shrimp Company, said her thriving business had been ravaged with income losses of more than $500,000 a month.
To recoup business, Ms Chauvin says she will have to spend heavily on advertising and insurance as well as new technologies so that clients can track her boats, and ensure they are fishing in open waters. “I am going to be paying thousands of extra dollars each month,” she said. “I don’t even know if I’m going to get my customers back.”