Gulf Seafood Update: An Industry Regains Its Sea Legs

When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010, 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, bringing the area’s seafood industry to a halt. Nearly three years later, Gulf seafood players stand united with plans to make the industry stronger than ever.

This article originally ran in the March 2013 issue of Food Manufacturing.

When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010, 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, bringing the area’s seafood industry to a halt. Nearly three years later, Gulf seafood players stand united with plans to make the industry stronger than ever.

With a total annual income of $26.9 billion and more than $60 billion in sales influence nationally, the Gulf seafood industry produces 70 percent of America’s oysters and 69 percent of its domestic shrimp. So when the largest oil spill on record coated the region, it devastated an industry vital not only locally, but on a nationwide scale.

An Oily Grave

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, essentially shutting down the Gulf seafood industry. A series of massive closures left more than one-third of area fisheries shuttered at the peak of the devastation. In addition to these mandatory closures, many processors voluntarily shut down their businesses as they waited out the BP claims process.

“Many [companies] laid off workers or worked crew fewer hours. Some shut down completely,” says Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries and chairman of the Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition.

Nelson says the oil spill dealt a massive blow to his business, Bon Secour Fisheries. Based in Bon Secour, Ala., the family-run company was established in 1896 by Nelson’s great-great grandfather. Bon Secour employs approximately 100 workers and annually processes more than $10 million in shrimp and oysters at its 30,000 square-foot facility.

“[The spill] severely impacted our ability to fulfill customer needs for fresh oysters,” Nelson says. Local sales were especially impacted at Bon Secour, as significant sales are generated through the area’s tourism industry, which was devastated by the spill.

Playing It Safe

Once mandatory closures ended and the Gulf reopened for business, the seafood industry faced what could be considered its greatest hurdle: convincing the public that Gulf seafood was safe to eat.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the FDA and the Gulf States worked jointly to ensure the safety of the region’s seafood following the spill. NOAA’s first action was to close oiled waters to prevent any potentially contaminated catches. According to NOAA, approximately 37 percent of federal waters in the Gulf region — 88,522 square miles from the northeaster coast of Texas to the Florida Keys — were closed to fishing at the height of the spill.

In the case of Deepwater Horizon, dispersants were used to help eliminate oil from Gulf waters. After the oil was removed, seafood samples were tested for both oil and dispersant content as part of a seafood safety plan developed by the FDA.

From April 2010 to June 2011, more than 8,000 seafood samples — including species such as shrimp, oysters, crabs, tuna and swordfish — were collected and subjected to rigorous sensory and chemical tests by trained experts. Samples were required to pass both forms of testing before an area was reopened to commercial fishing.

NOAA says that only 0.16 percent of seafood samples failed the sensory testing, most likely because the sampling began after oil had been dispersed from the region. All chemical test results were below the established level of concern. After all waters were reopened, periodic seafood samples continued to be tested to ensure ongoing safety.

All Gulf seafood has been long-declared safe for consumption by NOAA and the FDA, but consumers continue to be skeptical. Immediately following the spill, 70 percent of consumers said they were concerned about the safety of Gulf seafood, according to the Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition.

Nearly three years later, that number is down to 30 percent, but Nelson says the industry still has a long way to go. “The industry will fully recover, but it will take many more years of consumer education, marketing and public relations. [I] expect that this period will last for at least another five years,” he says.

Rising From The Depths

In an effort to rebuild the Gulf seafood industry, The Gulf & South Atlantic Fisheries Foundation, Inc. used a grant to form the Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition. The Coalition comprises five member states — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — which have joined to support all parts of the Gulf seafood distribution chain, from fishermen to retailers.

Nelson says the collaboration among the Gulf States has helped the Coalition meet one of its main objectives: to create greater demand for Gulf seafood. “[The states] have been able to share information and ideas for cooperative marketing, and coordinate the message going to consumers and purchasers of Gulf seafood products.”

The Coalition manages numerous outreach projects in order to increase consumer awareness of Gulf seafood. One project that was particularly successful was the Coalition’s partnership with Midwestern supermarket chain Hy-Vee. The grocer held a week-long Gulf shrimp promotion in August 2012, during which the Coalition reported a 63 percent increase in Gulf shrimp sales.

Another program integral to promoting Gulf seafood is Gulf Seafood Trace (GST). Created by the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, Trace Register and MRAG Americas, GST aims to build consumer confidence by supplying shoppers with the origin of their seafood purchases.

GST offers Gulf seafood businesses complimentary use of its electronic traceability and marketing tools through 2014, after which it hopes users will be willing to pay an administrative fee. The voluntary program connects to state fish ticket systems that record each seafood sale and follow the product to the corresponding retailer or restaurant. Using the QR codes on participating products, consumers can trace the journey of their seafood from boat to plate.

Challenges And Triumphs

With programs such as GST and groups like the Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition, the Gulf seafood industry is slowly but surely making strides toward a brighter future. More and more consumers are returning to Gulf seafood, and Nelson credits that to the strengths of the members dedicated to upholding the industry.

Groups like the Coalition will likely continue to face challenges throughout the next few years. Just recently, the Coalition was dealt a personal blow when its original chairman, Mike Voisin of Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, La., passed away suddenly on Feb. 2, 2013. Voisin was well-known for his dedication to the Coalition and the Gulf seafood industry.

“Mike Voisin’s contributions to the industry-community he served, and specifically to the Coalition, were immeasurable,” Nelson says. “The Coalition is diminished with his passing, as are the numerous groups for which Mike was an active and critical contributor.”

Still, Nelson maintains that Voisin’s contributions will not be forgotten, and that the Gulf seafood industry can look forward to a promising future as key players emerge to help raise the industry to new heights.

“Part of [Mike’s] legacy is the many whom he inspired to grow and learn,” Nelson says. “We should be hopeful that these individuals will come forward and, as described in Mike’s favorite quotation from Theodore Roosevelt, climb into ‘the arena’ and strive for ‘the triumph of high achievement.’”

It is clear that through the collaborative efforts and sheer determination of its dedicated members, the Gulf seafood industry can look forward to its moment of triumph.

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