NEW ORLEANS Commercial fishermen can now trawl Louisiana's waters for white shrimp as the season opened on Monday, but questions linger about the effects BP Plc's Gulf of Mexico oil spill will have on the harvest.
Some state waters have been open for brown shrimping since the well ruptured on April 20, but the overall catch has been down from previous years partly because a number of boats are signed up with BP's oil spill clean-up program.
The plump, sweet white shrimp are typically larger than brown shrimp and more desired by chefs. The U.S. government has said that seafood pulled from the areas of the Gulf of Mexico that is open to fishing is safe to eat despite all the oil that gushed into the ocean.
More than a fifth of federal waters in the Gulf remain closed due to fear of oil contaminating the seafood.
"Uncertainty has ruled this whole shrimping season," said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. "Our brand has been tarnished and we have a lot of work to do ahead of us."
Shrimpers are worried about what prices their catch will bring and also what effects the oil spill will have on the shrimp population, Smith said.
Smith said it is a positive for the industry that more waters are opening to fishing, a view shared by others.
"We are hoping for the best," said Errol Voisin, plant manager at Lafitte Frozen Seafood in Lafitte, Louisiana.
Voisin said his plant on Monday was processing domestic shrimp caught in waters off Texas and North Carolina, but noted that some shrimping boats had just set out in waters off Louisiana.
The shrimping industry in Louisiana creates 14,384 jobs and brings in $1.3 billion dollars a year for the state, according to the seafood marketing board.
LUNCH WITH FISHERMEN
To drive home the message that Gulf seafood is safe to eat, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke is having lunch with fishermen from the Gulf at a seafood restaurant on Monday and meeting with industry officials to discuss their concerns.
BP's offshore well rupture, which created the world's worst marine oil spill, closed state and federal waters at a great cost to commercial fisherman and boat captains who are hired by recreational fishermen.
No oil has spilled into the Gulf since July 15, when BP placed a tight-fitting containment cap on the well. At its peak, the spill closed about 37 percent of federal waters in the Gulf. About 22 percent is still closed.
In recent weeks, U.S. President Barack Obama has made a point of dining on Gulf Coast seafood. Obama and his family traveled to Panama City, Florida, on Saturday to declare the region's beaches "open for business."
But Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley said that the spill has put a stigma on Gulf Coast seafood.
"You can pretend that people are going to rush to a restaurant to order Gulf shrimp right now," Brinkley said. "Some people will, but a lot of people are worried about poisoning."
(Editing by Will Dunham)
(For more coverage of the oil spill, see link.reuters.com/hed87k)