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Officials Increase Efforts To Test Seafood

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

Tens of thousands of barrels of oil are still gushing every day from the well that ruptured in the Gulf of Mexico eight weeks ago. But state and federal officials have reopened some fishing areas on Louisiana's coast, and they're stepping up efforts to test the fish, shrimp and oysters that come ashore.

As NPR's Brian Mann reports, the region's seafood industry hopes that steps like these will avoid a major collapse of its markets around the country.

(Soundbite of conversations)

BRIAN MANN: This is the hundredth anniversary of the Acme Oyster House in New Orleans' French Quarter. This week, while customers were tucking in, in the main restaurants, Governor Bobby Jindal led a kind of pep rally for some of the state's biggest seafood producers and buyers.

Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): Maybe not everybody understands outside of Louisiana just how important our seafood industry is to our state. And some...

MANN: Seafood and fishing are a $3.3 billion industry in Louisiana. Locals say the value of seafood restaurants in attracting tourists, well, thats incalculable.

Tommy Cvitanovich is a burly guy who runs a famous eatery nearby called Drago's.

Mr. TOMMY CVITANOVICH (Owner, Drago's Restaurant): Make no mistake about it, never - and there is no way we can ever replace the Louisiana oyster. There is no comparison. I dont care...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. CVITANOVICH: ...East Coast, West Coast...

MANN: The good news is that roughly 70 percent of the state's coastal fishing grounds are still open, and the total amount of catch coming ashore is only off by about a third. And so far, the tourists, too, are still coming.

Sitting at his own oyster bar at Drago's, Tommy Cvitanovich watches his cooks work a giant flame grill. His dining room is bustling. But Cvitanovich says as the spill drags on, finding these high-quality oysters is getting harder and harder.

Mr. CVITANOVICH: You know, we went from paying $32 a gallon a month ago on oysters to today, I think the rate is somewhere around $58 a gallon.

MANN: Even before this spill, foreign seafood producers from countries like China and Taiwan were fighting to gain a foothold, lowering prices, and nudging aside Louisiana producer.

Mr. EWELL SMITH (Executive Director, Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board): You know, when the prices start - do go up, it'll open the door for other products from other countries. And we worked so hard in past years to fight that and the door is being opened - completely wide open.

MANN: Thats Ewell Smith, who heads Louisiana's seafood marketing program. Sitting in his office on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, he says the spill has been devastating.

Mr. SMITH: Our brand has been damaged so badly because this thing just keeps -this 24-hour real time video of a nightmare and it just keeps going on, and on and on.

MANN: State and federal agencies, half a dozen in total, are working to convince consumers that Louisiana seafood that reaches grocery stores and restaurants is safe.

Don Kraemer is leading the FDA's inspection program in the Gulf.

Mr. DON KRAEMER (Associate Director, Office of Seafoods, FDA): Our goal collectively is to make sure that fish that have become contaminated or might become contaminated are kept off of the market, so that they dont get to the consumer. So that consumers dont have to ask themselves, is the fish Im about to buy safe?

MANN: Despite those precautions, seafood industry leaders acknowledge some big unknowns. The biggest may be all those chemical dispersants used by BP to break up massive plumes of oil off-shore.

Again, Tommy Cvitanovich.

Mr. CVITANOVICH: We dont know what type of hydrocarbons thats putting in our water for the future and for our kids, and for the other fishermen and our industries. We have no clue to that right now. And if we dont have a clue, we shouldnt be doing it.

MANN: Another big variable, says the seafood marketing board's Ewell Smith, is what happens when this summer's storm season kicks in, pushing all that oil into new areas.

Mr. SMITH: If there's a hurricane and it stirs up the Gulf, all bets are off. Who knows whats going to happen?

MANN: That kind of risk raises even more doubts for seafood buyers who need a dependable supply. At this week's rally at Acme Oyster, Governor Jindal called on BP to create a half billion dollar fund to help this industry begin to rebuild, a process he says could take decades.

For NPR News, Im Brian Mann. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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