NEW ORLEANS — The rich fishing grounds of the Gulf of Mexico are beginning to reopen more than three months after crude began gushing from the sea floor. But those who harvest, process and sell the catch face a new crisis — convincing wary consumers it's not only delicious, but also safe.
As BP closed the books on a defining week in its battle to contain the oil, with engineers finally forcing the surging crude underground with a torrent of mud and concrete, people along the Gulf Coast began looking to the future — including the fishing industry, which has a tough sell despite tests showing that the catch seems safe to eat.
"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."
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 with safety suspicions abounding, 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 for a long weekend, 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 this year 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."
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."