The curious case of the disappearing Gulf seafood


The 5th anniversary of the BP oil spill is causing a lot of journalists to revisit issues that have not received the attention that they deserve in the last couple of years. Take the seafood catch from the Gulf of Mexico — not only a vital source of regional pride but a key driver of jobs in Louisiana and its neighboring states. In the weeks following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, officials went to great lengths to convince the American people that it was safe to eat the daily catch from the Gulf Coast. President Obama even took in a fish-filled luncheon for the national TV cameras, and invited area chefs to cook their seafood specialties at the White House.

But the hot lights of television dimmed, as they always do. People haven’t heard any negative reports about folks eating seafood caught in the Gulf, and so many assumed that everything was back to the way it was five or six years ago. But it doesn’t take a reporter very long to learn that one reason that shellfish and freshly caught fish from the Gulf isn’t making anyone ill is that it’s damn near impossible to find.

Here’s what local radio station WWNO learned:

Right after the spill, seafood restaurants were bombarded with concerns about the safety of what was being served, and where it came from. Today, the public has stopped asking questions and is ready to eat, but now there’s a supply issue. While marketing campaigns are spreading a message of safe and bountiful Gulf seafood, others in the industry worry about the future.

 The absence of fresh Gulf seafood in local restaurants is palpable:

Over in the French Quarter, the 135-year-old P+J Oyster Company has also lost a lot of local and national customers. The oysters they’re getting don’t meet company standards, so they won’t sell them.

It’s really disturbing to us because we feel helpless about the whole thing,” says Owner Al Sunseri. “We can’t get the high quality that we used to. We did fine after World War I, after World War II, during the Depression, during all the recessions, all the environmental issues, like hurricanes and natural disasters… until this happened.”

Sunseri won’t even call it a spill. “I’ll never say it’s anything but a disaster. It’s not a spill, because spills are easily cleaned up, and this is the gift that keeps on giving.”

But the problem really goes back to the source:

Goutierrez has been catching crabs for 50 years. At first it seemed like crabs were back after the spill. But for the past few years, his traps are coming up empty. He blames the dispersants used to sink the oil to the bottom of the gulf. He says that the chemicals destroyed the beds where crabs lay their eggs. Fewer areas to catch crabs means more competition.

It’s interesting: Folks seemed relieved in those initial months after the spill, when some of the worst predictions didn’t come to pass…or so it seemed. The truth is that all people needed to do is check with the folks in Alaska, where the much smaller Exxon Valdez shipwreck and spill occurred in 1989. There, it’s taken decades for marine life to return to normal, and for some species it’s not there yet. That makes sense. It can take awhile for crude oil — some of which is still coating the sea floor near the Deepwater Horizon site — to work its way through the food chain. Obviously the effect of toxins on reproductive health won’t show up right away, either. But this is the real state of the Gulf in 2015, and it’s the reason why we are unrelenting in our demands that BP acknowledge the problem, and do whatever it takes to make things right.

To read more about our early efforts in 2010 to show the truth about the BP spill and the dangers of Corexit, check out my book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

Please read the entire WWNO report on the diminished Gulf catch:

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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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