NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Those who rely on the Gulf of Mexico's rich fishing grounds say there's a new crisis brewing — convincing skeptical consumers that the seafood they harvest and sell is safe to eat.
The Gulf's fisheries are beginning to reopen more than three months after the oil began gushing from the sea floor, but those in the seafood industry say that doesn't mean everything has returned to normal.
"We have a huge perception problem," said Ewell Smith, director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. "We have lost markets across the country, and some of them may be lost for good."
More fishing grounds have reopened since BP's blown-out well was corked July 15, and engineers made important progress this week by forcing heavy mud and cement into the well to push the crude back underground. Engineers want to ensure the well doesn't erupt again and are drilling a relief well, one of the final steps to permanently plugging the spill that spilled millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf.
BP PLC said Sunday that pressure tests indicated the cement plug had hardened and was firmly in place, clearing the way for drilling of the relief well to resume. The company did not say when it would begin drilling the final 100 feet of the well, though BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells has said it should resume Sunday night.
Once the relief well intersects the broken well, more mud and cement will be pumped in for the "bottom kill" meant to seal the well for good.
Even with that progress, safety suspicions abound. The Gulf accounts for a majority of the domestic shrimp and oysters eaten by Americans and about 2 percent of overall U.S. seafood consumption. But consumers are turning up their noses and some wary suppliers appear to be turning to imports.
Tammy McNaught arrived in New Orleans from San Francisco on Saturday, and after seeing months of news coverage about the oil spill was trying to decide whether she would eat seafood and how much.
"It's probably nothing, but I'm not sure if it is safe. However, if it's deep fried, you know it is going to be OK," McNaught said, laughing.
At the annual Great American Seafood Cookoff, held Saturday in New Orleans, competition was secondary to spreading good word about Gulf seafood.
"Right now the general perception is that Gulf seafood is tainted. And I'm sure some of it is," said Peter Fischbach, of Toms River, N.J., a chef with Gourmet Dining Services. "But the stuff that's tainted is not on the market. It's not safe; it's not edible. It's not going to make its way to the market."
The well's suffocation coincided with the release of a federal report this week showing that only about a quarter of the oil lost to the leak remains in or along the shores of the Gulf, with the rest having dissipated or otherwise disappeared. The remaining 53 million gallons, though, would be enough alone to rank among the nation's worst spills.
Some fishing grounds remain closed as that oil continues to wash through the Gulf, but state and federal tests have shown samples of seafood in some areas safe to eat. The Food and Drug Administration says chemical dispersants used to break up the oil do not pose a public health concern.
Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer, sought to ease consumers' minds and palates by saying this week he would eat Gulf seafood himself and "serve it to my family."
Such assurances appear to be doing little to quell distaste for Gulf seafood, though.
Some processors are having difficulty selling the seafood they can get, even to long-established customers.
"I've talked to suppliers who have sold 20 years to companies and are now being told no," Smith said. "A lot of people are substituting imported product for Gulf product."
Keath Ladner, owner of Gulf Shores Sea Products in Bay St. Louis, Miss., won't send his 70 boats out, even though shrimp season is open in some Mississippi waters.
"They'd lose money," Ladner said. "Nobody wants it. I can't sell it."
Ladner's main national buyer sent him a letter recently telling him it wouldn't be buying seafood from the Gulf "until further notice," he said.
Even at one of New Orleans' toniest restaurants, Commander's Palace, where the menu stars dishes including pecan-crusted Gulf fish topped with jumbo lump crab, barbecued wild white shrimp or crispy soft- shell crab, some customers are hesitant to order.
"We have been selling Gulf seafood the entire time and there's some resistance, some people are worried," said Ti Martin, who helps run the family business, says some customers have been hesitant to order them. "But really, the number of government agencies testing seafood is unprecedented. If it's getting to market, it's good."