MOBILE, Ala. — Seafood workers spent time Friday talking to high-ranking government officials and learning how to sniff oil in an effort to battle what they regard as the industry’s biggest challenge 130 days after the Gulf oil spill.
That would be public confidence, they said, not contaminated fish.
Ben Fairey, a charter boat captain from Orange Beach, said he and his fellow boat operators have been grounded since June 2 because of closed fishing waters in the wake of oil gusher triggered by the April 20 explosion and subsequent sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
He urged government officials at a meeting in Bayou La Batre on Friday to reopen the federal waters to fishing south of Alabama as quickly as possible.
But that is not the only hurdle, Fairey said. He said he has had trouble booking charters for red snapper season in October because of fears the fish are unsafe.
“We are facing the exact same problem — perception,” he said.
Scientists from several government agencies told the crowd gathered at Sea Pearl Seafood Co. that testing has consistently shown that Gulf fish are safe.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Friday that it was reopening more than 4,000 square miles of closed Gulf fishing areas off western Louisiana.
Buck Sutter, NOAA’s deputy regional collaboration team leader, said he expects federal waters south of Alabama to reopen to fishing soon.
The story was the same earlier Friday in Mobile, where a seafood extension specialist from the University of Florida was conducting a class on how to sniff out oil in seafood.
“This nose gives you a huge safety factor,” said Steve Otwell, who works for the Aquatic Food Products Program at the university’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Otwell said Friday’s program was the seventh that has been presented. About 200 companies from every Gulf state have participated so far, he said. It is intended to add one more layer of protection to complement extensive government sampling and chemical analysis.
Although designed to help seafood processors know what to smell for as fish arrives on their docks, Otwell said, grocery store and restaurant owners have been showing up so they can know what to demand of their suppliers.
One of them was Hollie LeJeune, who owns Market By The Bay in Daphne and Fairhope. She said she believes it might take as long as three years for Gulf seafood to fully recover.
“We want to assure our customers that we’re selling a safe product. The more knowledge we have, the better that will be,” she said. “Our business has been decimated. (Customers) want to know where it comes from and is it safe.”
Otwell gave his students samples of shrimp and grouper tainted with oil in concentrations as low as 5 parts per million and less. He said he doubts processors would find seafood even at those levels.
More likely, he said, is that workers will come across fish contaminated by diesel from an unclean container on a boat or from oily rags. He showed his nascent sniffers how to smell the difference.
“We’re going to have people that are going to encounter seafood with diesel, and they are going to scream ‘oil spill,’ and we’ve got to get ready for it,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to find (crude-contaminate fish). But I think you could get a diesel. And that’s what I’m afraid of.”
Alan Clark, who owns Seaman Oysters in Bayou La Batre, said he got a lot out of the oil-sniffing program.
“It was probably a good start to educate local processors in dealing with the oil spill and seafood we’re fixing to start putting back on the market,” he said. “I think this will boost confidence in our buyers.”
Ernie Anderson, president of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama, told the government officials in Bayou La Batre that the best way to assuage public concerns is to aggressively and transparently report scientific findings.
“Good, bad, indifferent — we need to get it out there,” he said.
Bob Dickey, the director of the Food and Drug Administration Gulf Coast Seafood Laboratory on Dauphin Island, agreed that the government needs to improve its communication with the public.
Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries, said his plant is running at 10 percent to 15 percent capacity. He said the government needs to move faster in reopening waters before the industry can really know the public’s reaction.
“We’ll for sure never know until we can get product out there and have people eat it, other than the president and other high-profile people,” he said. “At some point, we have got to reopen these waters. There was no ‘processors of opportunity’ program.”
Darla Jones, quality assurance director of the Bon Secour shrimp processing firm Carson & Co., said she hopes public confidence in Gulf seafood will bounce back. But she said it would be difficult.
“It’s easy to break something,” she said. “It’s harder to fix it.”