GULF SHORES, Ala. — The Perdido Bay Mullet Festival in Lillian has endured two postponements and one cancellation in its quarter-century history, but the BP PLC oil spill has left organizers with a new dilemma this year — no mullet.
At a time when scientists and producers are trying to convince the public that reopening local waters to fishing shows that local seafood is safe, festival organizers and their supplier announced that after decades of serving Gulf mullet, the 2010 event would switch to catfish.
Weeks of tests have shown that Gulf seafood, including mullet, is safe, said LaDon Swann, director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. He said all testing has shown that local fish, shrimp and other items are safe. He said he not only eats Gulf seafood, but allows his two sons, aged 13 and 14, to do so.
“When I talk about seafood safety, understand that my first concern is the safety of my family,” he told members of the Alabama Gulf Coast Area Chamber of Commerce on Friday. “I have enough confidence in the results of that science that my kids eat fish, crabs, oysters and shrimp.”
Mullet Festival organizers, however, are worried about the quality of the seafood as well as public perceptions, Bill Cornell, president of the Optimist Club of Perdido Bay, said. The club puts on the festival each Labor Day in Lillian to raise money for community activities.
“We haven’t been able to get mullet this year,” Cornell said. “Our supplier said he didn’t feel good about the fish. They won’t sell them for human consumption. We’re going to go right on though and serve catfish. We could get mullet for our ‘mullet fling,’ but we can’t get edible mullet.”
This is the first year that organizers have ever had to deal with a fish shortage, Cornell said.
“We had a couple of hurricanes that delayed it and we had to cancel it once because of a hurricane, but this is the first time we haven’t been able to serve mullet,” Cornell said.
Asked about plans to use catfish in the Mullet Festival, Swann said he appreciated organizers’ concerns about public perception, but that mullet, like other Gulf seafood, is safe.
Brent Wallace of Wallace Seafood in Elberta, the company that supplies fish to the festival, said he recommended that the Optimists not use mullet this year. He said he noticed white spots near the gills of some mullet brought in and sent the fish to a Mobile laboratory to be checked.
“I haven’t heard back on that yet, but there’s been a lot of concern about dispersants, so we recommended they go with catfish,” Wallace said Wednesday. “Mullet feed off the bottom and we don’t know what’s been down there. You can’t smell dispersants.”
Swann said fish tested from the Gulf are subjected to a variety of laboratory tests. He said that if fish fail a smell test, those samples are disqualified on the spot, but all others undergo extensive chemical tests.
Swann said that while many residents have expressed concerns about the dispersants, the chemicals used to break up the oil are also found in household products such as shampoo, body cleansers and skin lotions.
“If I wore lipstick or makeup, and maybe I should, I would be more worried about the components in that than the components in dispersants,” Swann said.
Swann told chamber members that 54 percent of Americans do not trust the quality of Gulf Coast seafood in the wake of the spill. He said the opening of more waters to fishing, including areas off Alabama showed that seafood is being found to be safe.
“As these waters open, and the fact that they opened up last night in these areas, are a very positive sign, it’s going to allow the marketing people and business to really go to work to re-establish consumer confidence,” Swann said.
He said the extensive testing can be one way to rebuild that confidence.
“We go beyond basic seafood safety inspection,” he said. “We have enhanced inspection. Our product is good. We stand behind our product and science stands behind our product.”