As Oil Slick Spreads, Gulf Fishing Industry Braces for Possible Disaster

Gulf oil spill
Gulf oil spill

Mike Voisin, a seventh-generation Louisiana fisherman, wasn't too concerned about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico when it was first reported earlier this week. He's plenty worried now.

"At first, on a scale from 1 to 10, my anxiety level was at a 1," says Voisin, the owner of Motivatit Seafood, a Houma, La.-based oyster harvester and processor who said he was saddened by the death of 11 workers in the wake of the Apr. 20 accident that resulted in the Deepwater Horizon rig sinking. "As the week progressed, I'm at a 7."

The reason why Voison and other people associated with the $2.4 billion Louisiana seafood industry are worried is that an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil per day could be leaking into the ocean, five times higher than its original estimate. At the current rate, the oil spill will top the environmental devastation caused by the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 in about two months. BP (BP), which contracted the rig, is ultimately responsible for the costs of the clean-up, according to President Barack Obama. MSNBC reported that workers have found the first oil-soaked birds.

Wary Customers

Even though the accident occurred 50 miles away from shore -- well away from the fishing areas -- and the industry says Gulf seafood is safe, consumers aren't taking any chances.

"So far, [there has been] no impact on seafood prices, but some restaurants are considering switching away from Gulf-based seafood distributors to East Coast distributors, and they anticipate paying higher prices due to increased demand," says John Sackton, president of the market research firm in an email. "Of major concern to sellers is that consumer perceptions of the Gulf seafood might be impacted. There are many areas, such as Texas, that
are not under threat -- yet seafood from the Gulf could be seen as at risk."

Gulf oil spill
Gulf oil spill

Indeed, the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board is busy getting the word out that the state's seafood is safe to eat and that any contaminated food won't be sold. Oil has already hit the state, which has the largest Gulf fishing industry by far and is a major U.S. provider of crabs, oysters and shrimp, and may hit Mississippi this weekend, according to media reports.

Normal Harvest Before Spill

A state of emergency has been declared in Louisiana, and Florida Governor Charlie Crist today declared a state of emergency in several coastal panhandle counties. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal today asked the Defense and Homeland Security Depts. for National Guard assistance with the clean-up.

Ironically, Louisiana fishing businesses, which struggled to stay solvent in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, were having a normal harvest before the disaster struck, according to Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.

"We don't want to lose market share for reasons that aren't grounded," he says.

"A Large Number of Phone Calls"

Four class-action lawsuits have been filed in the Gulf Coast by the fishing industry because of the accident.

"People are very concerned about their livelihood and income," says Sidney W. Jackson III, an attorney in Mobile, Ala., who has filed one of the cases. "I'm fielding a large number of phone calls."