Chef Danny Trace
Brennan’s of Houston – Houston, TX
Ewell Smith, Executive Director
Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board
Harlon Pearce, Chairman
Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board
We all know the story: an explosion, 11 tragic deaths, and oil—lots of it. Five months of it, in fact. From April 20 to September 19, 2010, when the pipeline was declared “effectively dead,” crude oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon drill site spewed into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, just 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. In total, 37 percent of federally controlled state waters were shut down, and 206 million gallons of oil and almost 1 million gallons of chemical dispersant were pumped into the waters of the Gulf. And yet today, at dinner service across the region, chefs will serve red snapper Pontchartrain, crispy oyster BLTs, and seafood gumbo with local product (and an easy Southern smile). Do they know something we don’t?
Shrimp etouffée might be back on Gulf menus (especially with white shrimp season), but chefs are proceeding with caution. And that’s because they’re dealing with an unprecedented environmental situation—the uncharted waters, so to speak, of an oil spill unlike any other. Since April, when the rig first sank its way 2.5 miles down into the deep of the Gulf, the future of that vibrant ecosystem has been in question. Nor was it simply a matter of the oil itself. The use of chemical dispersants (which essentially break up oil slicks into smaller, microbially-digestible particles) meant the shoreline would be spared much of the damage, but the water column—and any sea life depending on it—would be at greater risk.
“They did use more dispersant than ever before, and there was concern about that,” says Ewell Smith, Director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. (It didn’t help that the first—discontinued—round of dispersants, specifically COREXIT® EC9527A and COREXIT® 9500, were found to be carcinogenic). Not only that, but because of the depth of underwater plumes, oxygen-dependent microbes would have serious trouble reaching their petrol-payload. Colder, oyxgen-deprived waters meant we were depending on anaerobic microbes (the ancient kind that probably remembers the taste of primordial ooze) to do much of the oil eating, and they tend to take their time.
Fortunately the Gulf is a rich ecosystem. And not only that, but Smith was assured by none other than Acting Deputy Director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Don Kraemer that chemical dispersants are “100 percent water soluble”—meaning “it’s impossible for them to get into the tissue of any fish”—and their life cycle is “a matter of days.” You dump, dispersants break up the oil, microbes chow down, and dispersants dissipate. Good news, right? Except the message isn’t getting out there quite yet. “People on the Gulf Coast are getting that message clearly,” says Ewell. But according to a recent study by Louisiana State University, 59 percent of Americans are still concerned about Gulf seafood; 23 percent won’t eat it at all. “Perception is a very powerful thing. Our job is to turn that around.”
And the fact is, Gulf seafood is testing clean. “This seafood is one of the most tested food product, if not the most tested food product, in the world right now,” says Brian Landry, former Galatoire’s chef and current Gulf seafood ambassador for LSP&MB. “Over 300,000 tests have been run on our seafood, and they’ve all come back clean.” And Landry’s not just trusting the science; he’s trusting the tradition of fishing on the Gulf. “If you’re a shrimper and you catch shrimp, obviously you’re selling that. But you’re also feeding it to your family. You’re not going to jeopardize a fifth generation shrimp business to sell a couple pounds of bad shrimp.”
Landry’s not the only one confident in his product. “This seafood is tested like no other,” says Danny Trace, native Louisianan and current chef of Brennan’s of Houston. “We talk to the people who are on the front lines, doing the testing, and get the most current information possible.”
So what is the most current information? According to the most recent Surveillance Report from the Department of Health and Hospitals, part of Louisiana’s oil spill monitoring team, “no (0) samples showed levels of concern, meaning that any chemicals detected”—compounds like polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons (or PAHs, the cancerous stuff in oil) and dioctyle sodium sulfosuccinate (DOSS, a major component of dispersant—“were below levels that could potentially threaten the public’s health.” In fact, current estimates indicate that a person would have to consume about 60 pounds of Gulf shrimp a day for five years to reach any kind of level of toxicity. So unless you’re a pathological shrimp gorger, contamination is impossible.
But don’t bring your sick and weary down the Mississippi just yet. Gulf waters aren’t miraculous, at least as far as current testing shows. They’re just doing what nature does best: recovering after grave human error. “The Gulf is taking care of itself,” says Chef Trace. “Even the marshland. It’s been oil saturated, and yet greenery is already trying to push through. Nature heals itself. It’s amazing.” Of course, it didn’t hurt that this time around, the government response to natural disaster, including the FDA, EPA, and NOAA, was actually (ahem) effective. “The moratorium placed on fishing basically gave the Gulf a year off,” says sustainability advocate and seafood expert Barton Seaver. “We’re seeing stocks that have rebounded to levels—anecdotally from fishermen—they’re saying they’ve never seen before.”
And (Gulf area chefs rejoice) that’s helping the price come down. “I just left Galatoire’s a couple weeks ago,” says Chef Landry. “It's one of the largest purchasers of local seafood in the city. We were buying 500 pounds of jumbo lump crab meat a week, 100 pounds of fresh wild caught shrimp every day we were open, and another 80 to 120 pounds of fin fish, all from the Gulf. And the prices really are in line with what we are used to paying.” Harlon Pearce, Chairman of the LSP&MB, can testify. Pearce is on the front lines, working with fishermen every day and coordinating recovery efforts with government agencies—not to mention managing a fat $30 million dollar check from BP. “Crab prices have definitely dropped; the price of fin fish has definitely dropped; shrimp are bringing fair prices. All those things are beginning to level out, beginning to get back to normal.”
In fact, the only trouble with pricing doesn’t have to do with contamination, but with the logistics of the spill and a bit of bad meteorological luck. Tuna populations are there for the catching, but the trouble is getting fishermen out onto the boats. “You’ve got two kinds of fishermen in the Gulf right now,” says Pearce. “The kind that want to sell us fish and the kind hoping to get taken care of by BP.” Pearce is referring to the controversial $20 million dollar Feinberg Fund, a BP compensation program defined by a lack of transparency and agile, evasive legal maneuvering. If commercial fishermen resume productivity, there’s a chance they might not qualify for relief, so many simply aren’t fishing. “These guys have legitimate claims, but they don’t know how to handle it.”
The oyster situation is a lot less legal, though still as murky. Because they were flooded with freshwater from the Bonnet Carre Spillway on the East (to deter oil contamination) and the Morganza Spillway on the West (to relieve flooding this May), populations died out. “With oysters, we’re gonna lose continuity of production in the fall,” says Pearce of the $360 million dollar industry. But even that means greater yields in two to three years. “After a major freshwater event, oysters plant shells on the ground, spat sets on the shells, and you have new growth.”
Meanwhile the Gulf seafood community is taking care of its own. “Texas and Alabama have actually aided greatly in getting oysters to the chefs in Louisiana,” says Landry. “Everybody’s kind of working together right now to make sure there isn’t some huge spike in price.” And for its part, Louisiana is paying it forward. “Right now, we’re supplying Maryland with tons of blue crab because they’re having a bad blue crab season,” says Landry. “It’s kind of the way the seafood industry has always worked. Mother Nature plays such a huge role every year in the availability; there’s kind of already systems in place for when maybe one place isn’t having a good year.”
Mother Nature is clearly doing her part. And people seem to be following through with optimism, tempered by a very (very) seasoned caution, and spiked with a healthy dose of Gulf pride. “We have the best seafood in the world,” says Chef Trace. “Hands down.” Seaver, who’s developing an urban aquaculture project in the area to “diversify the economy and take some of the burden off the fisheries,” sees an opportunity to reassess where civilization and ecology collide, as they tend to do. “There’s a very delicate balance to human ecosystems and human economy systems that are directly tied to nature.” Seaver recommends projects like Gulf Wild, a seafood quality verification system, as part of the long-term solution to our eco-estrangement.
“I proceed with cautious optimism,” says Landry, whose campaign with LSM&PB intends to bring the “all clear” message across the country. “Obviously time will tell what the state of our seafood industry is going to be in the future.” At least for now, Landry is optimistic enough to bring the Gulf seafood message to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, in the very convincing form of Crawfish Etouffée over Stone Ground Grits—an effective outreach campaign if ever there was one.