Jul 30, 2010 9:27 PM by Alison Haynes
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Commercial fishermen were allowed back in
some Louisiana waters east of the Mississippi River on Friday after
federal authorities said samples of finfish and shrimp taken there
were safe to eat.
The opening came two weeks after a cap at the wellhead stopped
oil from spilling from BP's well a mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico.
About 70 percent of state waters in Louisiana are now open to some
variety of commerical fishing, according to the state Department of
Wildlife and Fisheries.
State waters in Mississippi and Alabama remained closed. Alabama
officials said state waters may be reopened for fishing if samples
pass lab and other tests over the next several days. The Louisiana
Department of Health and Hospitals also reopened three oyster
harvesting areas east of the Mississippi, including Lake Borgne in
Randall Pausina, assistant wildlife secretary in Louisiana, said
areas west of the Mississippi may be opened over the next two
weeks: the western-most closed areas in the Terrebonne Basin
opening as early as the middle of next week, and the Barataria
Basin, just west of the river, a week after that.
Beyond state waters, more than 57,000 square miles - about 24
percent - of federal Gulf waters remain closed to fishing by the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Louisiana fisherman Pete Gerica said he couldn't work up much
enthusiasm about the latest opening, noting it doesn't include
crabs or oysters and that shrimp season in most of the area isn;t
"If you can't crab in these areas, it's a flop," said Gerica.
However, the openings were hailed by seafood industry
representatives as a step toward replenishing diminishing supplies
of fish for Louisiana processors and restaurants, and reassuring
the public that Louisiana seafood is safe.
"This will help us mentally and having inventory will help us
get back up and running," said Ewell Smith, director of the
Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.
"It'll take us five years to rebuild this brand because of
perception. It's a perception battle, it's killing us."
That problem was exemplified by Dawn Nunez, 44.
She and her husband own Amigo Ice Co. Inc., in Ysckloskey, in St
Bernard Parish. Shrimpers have been bringing their hauls there for
30 years. She was skeptical of the government assurances and said
fishermen would end up wasting their money by catching shrimp that
end up being unable to be sold.
"I'd like to see those people eat this seafood for three years,
and if they don't have a twitch or a tumor then I'll talk to
them," she said. "We may be fishermen but we're not stupid. All
they're doing is downplaying the damage they done."
Reinforcing the state's delcaration that Louisiana seafood is
safe to eat was U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner
Margaret Hamburg, who attended a news conference in New Orleans on
Hamburg said fish tested showed levels of contaminants that were
"extremely low, significantly below the threshhold of concern."
She stressed that testing will continue because of the large volume
of oil spilled and dispersants used to break it up.
"At the moment this is good news," she said. "We are
confident that the product harvested from these waters are safe,
wholesome and delicious."
Brian Landry, executive chef at the historic Bourbon Street
restaurant Galatoire's, said he's been able to get enough fish from
open waters, but the opening can only help. "It helps us with the
variety of species, also with the quantities of fish that we
typically go through," he said, adding that it could mean lower
prices as more fish hit the market.
The newly opened waters had already been opened by the state to
recreational fishing based on extensive testing of the fish, but
FDA approval was needed to open commercial fishing. Gov. Bobby
Jindal and seafood processors complained about a backlog of samples
awaiting FDA testing, and about FDA protocols that complicated the
For instance, the FDA refused samples from waters where oil was
spotted. That had Louisiana officials in a lather last week because
they said FDA refused samples from areas were small numbers of tar
balls - clumps of weathered oil that are less toxic and would not
be ingested by the fish - had been spotted.
Harlon Pearce, owner of a suburban New Orleans processing plant
and the chairman of the promotion board, had been highly critical
of the FDA, but he welcomed the news of the Friday and said the FDA
has been working closely with the state to get more tests done.
"The coordination that we've seen lately with the FDA has been
great," Pearce said Friday.
The waters remained closed to crabbing because the FDA testing
method for crabs takes significantly longer than finfish and shrimp
testing, a Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries news release said.
Oysters in some Louisiana waters have been killed not by oil
contamination but by fresh water diverted south in hopes of keeping
oil from encroaching.
The area opened, according to Friday's announcement, is east of
the Mississippi River in New Orleans and St. Tammany, St. Bernard
and Plaquemines parishes.
"Things are going to, hopefully, ramp up pretty quickly this
weekend," Pearce said.