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Oil and Water 

Clean wetlands are the key to future seafood harvests

click to enlarge Al Sunseri, co-owner of P&J Oyster Co., laid off the company's shuckers June 10. P&J has been in business since 1876. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Al Sunseri, co-owner of P&J Oyster Co., laid off the company's shuckers June 10. P&J has been in business since 1876.

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, as many of us searched for information about our city from afar, rumors of worst-case scenarios spread much faster than facts. One friend tearfully assured me that every oak lining Esplanade Avenue had been blown down, news supposedly transmitted to her by an eyewitness. The ridiculous notion that sharks were prowling Canal Street was actually told and retold, and for some out-of-towners the idea of a submersed New Orleans lingered in the imagination for years.

  For home cooks and restaurant patrons, the true impact on Louisiana seafood from the BP oil disaster is similarly difficult to reckon.

  Early in the crisis, many people rushed to load freezers with local seafood, shopping sprees driven by fears that each purchase could be the last for some time. More recently, seafood buyers around the country have begun refusing Gulf product, fearing contamination, and some restaurants now prominently assure patrons they use nothing from our region. (See Fins Across America" in News & Views) But nearly two months into this crisis, though oysters are now scarce, local markets remain well stocked with Louisiana shrimp, crab and finfish at fairly stable prices.

  Like news of the worst in the Katrina aftermath, the anxiety and confusion over our seafood comes from the dread state of not knowing what will happen and how bad things will get. But while the focus has been on the immediate supply and who can get what tomorrow, others worry how things will be next year and beyond if more is not done to keep oil from penetrating deep into Louisiana's coastal wetlands.

  "The wetlands are where everything is produced, and it's all there in its most vulnerable state: young fish, young shrimp, young oysters, young birds," says Kerry St. Pe, a fisheries biologist and director of the Barataria-Terrebone National Estuary Program, a local conservation group. "The main thing is to do no harm to the wetlands. If you can save the wetlands, you have a nursery to replace all the animals you lost from the spill."

  A recent boat tour of this wildly productive environment served as a chilling preview of what could be if we allow it to be poisoned by the oil disaster. Local seafood industry leaders organized the trip, which was led by Wilbert Collins' family over their oyster leases in Caminada Bay, just off Grand Isle, an area that appeared clean at the time but had been closed by the state because an oil sheen had been sighted there days earlier.

  The oyster boat chugged around submerged oyster reefs while our hosts discussed the peril to a way of life in the largely family-based fishing business, where one generation often teaches the ropes to the next. BP may cut checks to cover losses, but if estuaries are befouled and future harvests are compromised — if the reputation of Gulf seafood is lastingly tainted and people can't or won't eat it, and if the next generation can't earn a living fishing — then those early, frightened runs to stock the freezer may well prove prophetic.

  Caminada Bay should have been swarming with commercial and recreational fishing boats on the day of our tour. But very little was astir. The dorsal fins of porpoises arched out of the water occasionally, and helicopters rumbled above, headed toward the rigs offshore. But no one was fishing except the pelicans.

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