May 12, 2010 / 9:37 PM / 9 years ago

Gulf Coast oil spill chills seafood industry

* Trucks haul in seafood from Texas

* New Orleans restaurants report adequate seafood supply

* Louisiana accounts for a third of U.S. seafood supply

By Mary Rickard

NEW ORLEANS, May 12 (Reuters) - Michael’s Seafood shipped almost 1.7 million pounds of shrimp from Louisiana’s rich fishing grounds last year, hauling it in 18-wheeler trucks from the docks to processing plants in the Gulf Coast state.

But with a massive slick from a blown-out oil well owned by London-based BP (BP.L) creeping across prime oystering and shrimping grounds east of the Mississippi River, owner Michael Gangi is trucking in seafood from marinas in Texas.

“Right now, it is very scary,” said Gangi, who owns three retail seafood outlets in Jefferson and Hammond, Louisiana.

Louisiana is the second-biggest U.S. seafood harvester — only Alaska is bigger — and the number one provider of shrimp, oysters, crab, crawfish and alligator.

“I’m sending a truck to Texas to try to survive,” Gangi said. One of his drivers travels 10-12 hours from New Orleans, purchasing shrimp off docks from Corpus Christi to Galveston, Texas. That driver relays with three other semi-trailer truckers to transport shrimp to New Orleans.

“We’re in real trouble - I have no crabmeat now,” he said. “This ain’t my first hurdle - trust me,” Gangi said.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed the original family seafood business in 2005. Before that disaster, he sold $12 million worth of shrimp a year.

The ruptured undersea well off the coast of Louisiana is gushing unchecked at a rate of 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 litres) per day, swelling a huge oil slick that threatens fishing grounds, beaches and wildlife refuges.

Fishing has been banned across a huge swath of Gulf waters, and thousands of fishermen are being forced to choose between staying idle or signing up to work on the oil containment operation.

But the slick has yet to disrupt Louisiana’s $2.4 billion seafood industry, which supplies up to 40 percent of U.S. seafood supply and employs over 27,000 people. The spill has closed down about a quarter of the state’s seafood harvesting grounds, but that figure grow as the spill creeps westward.

SIGNATURE DISH

“This is all I know, is seafood, and I know it good,” said Gangi, who was unloading shrimp boats at the age of 12.

State and federal agencies this week reported that intensive environmental monitoring shows that no pollutants had penetrated human air, water and food supplies.

The areas closed to fishing represent slightly less than 4.5 percent of Gulf of Mexico federal waters, according to NOAA, though those areas are of particular importance to New Orleans.

“Seafood is the signature dish in New Orleans,” said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. “Imagine Commander’s Palace without seafood,” he said, referring to a venerable seafood restaurant in the city’s Garden District neighborhood.

Chris Montero, executive chef at Bacco in New Orleans’ French Quarter, said he has plenty of access to fresh seafood, adding that there was no shortage of deep-water white shrimp. Prices have begun to rise but supply lines are holding up.

“This area has become pretty adept to taking steps in disasters,” Montero said.

At Casamento’s Restaurant, an uptown institution known for fresh oysters, business is booming.

“Last Friday night, the line was out the door to the corner,” said C.J. Gerdes, the restaurant’s chef and owner. But his suppliers’ deliveries have slowed.

“I have enough product to get through Saturday,” Gerdes said. The restaurant has traditionally closed for summer since 1949. “I’m more worried about September if they can’t get this thing plugged up,” he said. (Editing by Chris Baltimore and Paul Simao)

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