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Eight weeks after oil stopped gushing, people are still wary of gulf seafood

Gulf seafood is scratched off the menu at the Pearl despite the eatery's location near the gulf on Treasure Island.

That's because customers are willing to fork out $28 for Hawaiian snapper, but turn up their noses at $18 grouper from the Gulf of Mexico.

"I tell customers there is nothing wrong with gulf seafood, but they still won't go for it," said chef-owner Karim Chiadmi. "I used to have a lot of fish from the gulf, but I lost money trying to sell it."

Eight weeks after the oil stopped gushing, diners are regaining their shaken confidence in seafood, but remain particularly leery about anything culled from the gulf.

Never mind that there's no product shortage except for gulf oysters. Or that regulators cleared 85 percent of the 600,000 square miles of gulf waters for fishing, up from 63 percent a month ago. Or that testing for traces of oil by-products around the spill area has been stepped up.

"So far no contaminated seafood has entered the stream of commerce," said Martin May, a seafood research manager with the Florida Department of Agriculture. "We believe that within 60 days or so of an 'all clear,' we'll get a majority of customers back. But the rest are occasional seafood eaters who are critical long term."

Flagging demand lingered long enough that gulf seafood prices are falling. And after a 50 percent run-up, prices are leveling off for oysters, which were hurt when 40 percent of the Louisiana crop was wiped out by a decision to flood the delta with freshwater to keep oil out of the marshes.

"We're continually getting questions about whether the seafood is safe," said Gib Magliano, owner of Save on Seafood, a St. Petersburg retailer that wholesales to Publix, Red Lobster, Cheesecake Factory and Cisco, the big restaurant food supplier. "Are the oysters safe? Do the shrimp have oil on them? Stupid stuff like that."

"That's our quandary," said Matt Loder, owner of the eight-store Crabby Bill's restaurant chain, which had to put on the back burner plans to sell only domestic seafood because of the oil spill. "How do you market that there is nothing wrong?"

"We've had no issues with availability," said Shannon Patten, spokeswoman for Publix Super Markets. "Over the past three or four weeks prices have fallen for shrimp. But we think grouper prices are dropping because longline fishing reopened, so supply is up."

America imports 83 percent of its seafood from other countries and only 2 percent from the gulf. So suppliers had little trouble finding replacements while the Deepwater Horizon disaster raged.

On the line are the livelihoods of thousands employed by the Gulf Coast fishing industry. Oil idled many boats in port much of the summer. In Louisiana only 20 percent of the fleet is out fishing because bigger boats are working for BP or because gulf seafood prices sank too low to cover expenses.

While many marine scientists say more research is required to give a clean bill of health to fishing grounds near the spill, the federal government has dramatically increased seafood testing there. Measures include smell tests, water quality samples and so far carving up 30,000 seafood creatures in search of oil by-products.

"The level of testing of gulf seafood is unprecedented in the U.S. and possibly anywhere," said Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group.

Normally, consumers forget major food safety scares and sales fully recover within four to six weeks. Not this time.

As seafood demand remained relatively stable through the summer, confidence in the safety of gulf seafood nationally is showing only initial signs of a comeback.

At the height of the spill, surveys found 41 percent of seafood shoppers were unwilling to buy gulf seafood and almost a third unwilling to buy any seafood. Since then shopper concerns have eased.

"My educated guess is it's turned positive by about 20 percent since hitting bottom," said Dennis Degeneffe, who compiles the Food Industry Safety Tracking study at the University of Minnesota. "But we still have a long way to go to recovery. The around-the-clock media coverage has stopped. So the healing process has begun."

Americans have been more skittish about seafood safety than other foods for a long time. That's partly because, except for coastal areas, fresh seafood has been a mass market product for only a few decades. Americans are less certain about how to choose or cook seafood, much less ask where it comes from. That's why $50 billion of the $75.5 billion in seafood sold last year was served at restaurants.

That explains why the first steps Louisiana seafood marketers chose to rehab their brand are appearances by New Orleans celebrity chefs touting the safety of gulf seafood. They also are hosting influential chefs from other regions on inspection tours of industry facilities.

"The gulf seafood industry has a major branding challenge rebuilding lost trust. It's going to take years," said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Marketing Board.

"Before the oil spill we were losing market share to the imports," he said. "Now we face images of oiled pelicans that are really burned into people's imaginations."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Even before the gulf oil spill, U.S. seafood consumption slipped from 16 to 15.8 pounds a person in the 2009 recession. A comparatively expensive source of protein, that's a fraction of the average American's annual appetite for 110 pounds of red meat. Here's a breakdown of the most popular seafoods.

Shrimp — 4.1 pounds

Canned tuna — 2.5 pounds

Salmon — 2.04 pounds

Alaska pollock — 1.45 pounds

Tilapia — 1.21 pounds

Catfish — 1.21 pounds

Crab — 0.59 pounds

Cod — 0.42 pounds

Clams — 0.41 pounds

Source: National Fisheries Institute

Eight weeks after oil stopped gushing, people are still wary of gulf seafood 09/17/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 12:52am]

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