Should you avoid Gulf seafood?

Stock up on those shrimp: Here's why you don't need to worry about oil toxins in your fish

Topics: Gulf Oil Spill, American Regional Cuisines, Growers and Producers, Food,

Should you avoid Gulf seafood?Hosea Wilson loads shrimp from their catch into a basket, Monday, May 3, 2010, at the Venice Marina in Venice, La. NOAA has restricted commercial and recreational fishing in oil-affected portions of the Gulf of Mexico. Their boat has been recruited to aid with the oil spill clean up efforts. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)(Credit: AP)

From certain angles, the Gulf oil spill is making it look like boom times for shrimp fishermen along the Gulf Coast. Barely hour after opening the Crescent City Farmer’s Market in New Orleans yesterday, vendors were nearly sold out. Todd Rosetti, owner of Quality Poultry and Seafood in Biloxi, MS, tells me he can’t keep enough stock in his warehouse. But when I called him, he answered my greeting of “How’s it going?” with a terse “For shit.” I met Todd a couple of years ago, when I did a series of oral histories on shrimping culture in Biloxi, and he usually talks with a measured, polite calm, but his voice betrayed his stress. He’s not sure how long he’ll be able to get shrimp to sell, and how long people are going to want it.

The damage the oil will cause to the Gulf ecology and economy is, of course, still unknown. As Mike Madden reported for Salon, many fishermen are stuck waiting for an all-clear to go fish, while the mortgage bills on their boats stack up. But even for the fishermen who survive what the black goop hath wrought (and, battered by decades of cheap imported shrimp and barely hanging on after Hurricane Katrina, there may not be many), the gravest damage to the Gulf fishing industry may be, like the oil spill itself, man-made: a market hollowed out by fear of contaminated seafood, even if it’s actually safe to eat.

Right now, there is a surge in What-if-I-Can’t-Have-It-Anymore Gulf seafood sales; spurred on by reports of impending oilpocalypse, fans of the stuff are loading up for their last hurrahs. A friend who stopped by the Crescent City market saw people filling coolers destined for their freezers; a friend of his bought 20 pounds of shrimp — 10 for herself, and 10 for her friend on jury duty. But for shrimpers, this is a good thing that’s also a bad sign, because the more the anticipation of Gulf Shrimp Armageddon grows, the more likely we are to eventually turn and believe that whatever Gulf seafood that makes it to the market is tainted.

The misunderstanding would be easy to understand. After a string of widely publicized food safety failures in recent years — from E. Coli spinach to all manner of ground beef badness — consumers are already jittery about food that comes from seemingly wholesome places, and “75% of the Gulf is still clean!” is not the kind of PR slogan that’s going to get a lot of traction. And then there’s the fact that the closing of fishing grounds is actually a bit more complex than is usually reported. Concerned about oil contamination, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared an open-ended hold of at least 10 days on all fishing in an area of Federally-controlled waters between eastern Louisiana to Pensacola Bay in Florida. (Click here for a map of the closed area.) I had to say that again, slowly, three times before I caught all that, with the important caveats — like fishing still being legal and safe in the closer-to-shore State-managed waters. But boil it down to a media-friendly headline, like “Gulf Fishing Closed from Louisiana to Florida,” and you can see where people will start thinking there’s no safe fishing in the Gulf at all, and even legal, NOAA-inspected catches will be shunned in the market.

That’s what worries Frank Parker most. Frank is a seventh-generation fisherman in Biloxi, possessed of a swagger and optimism I didn’t see elsewhere among Gulf fishermen. “I’m one of the aces in this business,” he said to me, proud of his ability to make it in shrimping after Katrina, when many captains were hanging up their galoshes for good. He’s confident his ace-ness will carry him through this oil spill, too, since he knows the spots to fish that are expected to be unthreatened by oil, spots in the area that produces 77% of Louisiana’s shrimp catch anyway. But what he can’t control is whether people will buy his catch. “Oyster season, for instance, always closes around the end of April. It just coincided with the oil spill this year, so the media jumped on it, and that caused a frenzy of people thinking that they closed the oyster season because of contamination. I will worry if we do get some kind of oil, but I’m really worried if they open the shrimp season and the public still thinks the seafood is tainted.”

Dr. Jim Cowan, a professor in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Science at Louisiana State University, is an expert in fisheries management and ecology. “There’s no potential now for contaminated seafood,” he says. “All the seafood available now was harvested before the oil spill, so I certainly wouldn’t be worried about it being contaminated.”

But he’s concerned, too about the public shunning of Gulf seafood. “When the fishing grounds are reopened — and they will be — I’d be confident in the safety of the food. It’s pretty easy to test [for oil-related toxins] in the product. Consumer safety is as big a part of NOAA as fisheries management, and they’re very, very good at monitoring contamination. Every once a while, small oyster areas will be closed because a boat came in and pumped out their ballast water. They can find that, so they have a strong system. I think consumers can be confident.”

But what Dr. Cowan is not confident of, though, is whether there will be many fishermen left to work the waters when they re-open. Many, who work on bigger boats, do need to fish in deeper waters — the kind that are currently closed — and it may not be long before their unpaid mortgages put them out of business. And, of course, the spill could move and worsen.

“The shrimp industry in the Gulf has declined primarily because of the price of imported shrimp. Between that, Katrina, and the price of fuel going up again, I don’t know whether the fishery is resilient to withstand a closure like this for very long. This could be very serious,” he says. When asked what can be done to save this industry and this way of life, he reiterated an answer I’ve been hearing from years from fishermen themselves: “Encourage people to eat Gulf oysters and shrimp.”


Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>