WASHINGTON — Gulf of Mexico shrimp, famous for their sweet taste and firm texture, have survived a domestic market flooded by imports and a near-death experience after Hurricane Katrina.
However, the Gulf oil spill, arriving just as the harvesting season was about to begin in mid-May, has shut down key fishing waters and is proving even more worrisome to shrimpers, processers and restaurants as they face what could be a years long, if not permanent, loss of market share to farm-raised shrimp from Southeast Asia.
Gulf shrimp caught off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida is 10 percent of the U.S. market.
Now there's an overriding concern that the public will shun the shrimp that has the taint of the oil spill.
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"We were just on the rebound from Hurricane Katrina," said David Gautier, the co-owner of Pascagoula Ice and Freezer Co., a family-owned Mississippi shrimp processor. "I thought we were about to turn the corner."
Supply is dwindling, however, with shrimp boats out laying boom to contain the spill and fishing waters closing as the oil moves to shore.
"Our biggest concern is what might be done to the domestic marketplace," said David Veal, the executive director of the American Shrimp Processors Association in Biloxi, Miss. The processors are all applying for claims from BP, the company responsible for the spill, Veal said.
"We're out of business," said Richard Gollott, co-owner of Golden Gulf Coast Packing Co., a family-owned Biloxi processor. "Business is down 95 percent. We just don't have anything to sell."
Even as Gollott readies his claim to BP, he said quietly, "The long-term effects of this are what I'm scared of."
Buyers — restaurants and grocery chains — are canceling orders and leaving the Gulf shrimp industry wondering if it'll see signs like one Gautier saw in front of a restaurant while watching a Chicago television station: "We do not sell Gulf shrimp."
While the state health departments of the Gulf states are monitoring and checking the waters — and closing fishing zones if necessary — and monitoring locally caught shrimp, industry officials know they have to fight a perception problem.
"It's in nobody's best interest to process shrimp that is contaminated," Veal said. "It would be sheer suicide for them."
The buyers of Gulf shrimp are definitely boosters.
"We believe that farm-raised shrimp can't compete with Gulf shrimp on taste," said Tommy Cvitanovich, the owner of Drago's, two big seafood restaurants in New Orleans and Metairie, La. "Obviously, we take pride in our seafood in Louisiana."
Cvitanovich said he's very comfortable with the safety of the seafood.
"From shrimpers to restaurateurs and everybody in between, nobody wants tainted shrimp to leave Louisiana," he said.
Another restaurateur, Steve Pettus, managing partner of Dickie Brennan & Co., with three restaurants in New Orleans, said the Gulf shrimp is vital to many regional dishes, including shrimp Creole and seafood gumbo.
"In New Orleans and throughout the South, shrimp is almost a staple of our diet," said Pettus, whose restaurants have a reserve of frozen shrimp that will last through the summer.
Southern Shrimp Alliance executive director Jon Williams, based in Tarpon Springs, Fla., said the oil spill "has great impact on folks inside of the Barrier Islands," in the Gulf waters near the spewing Deepwater Horizon rig. "Now is the normal opening of the season."
In addition to concerns about the oil slick, consumers are asking about the impact of the dispersants BP is using to break up the oil and new findings of underwater plumes, as large as 22 miles wide, which could destroy the shrimp larvae.
"We don't know the ecological impact of what's happening to our waters," said Gautier.
"It's very, very scary," said Williams. "It could be one year, two years, or 40 years" before Gulf shrimp is fully available. "This could be a generational impact."
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