POLL Oil well capped, but Gulf Coast fisheries still reeling from scared consumers

Are you eating seafood from the Gulf again?

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— There’s a lot of good news about BP’s oil spill these days.

Oil is no longer gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. The ruptured oil well has been sealed, with a more permanent plug in the works.

You might expect Dennis Henderson, a co-owner of Trico Shrimp Co. in Fort Myers Beach, to feel relief. But he isn’t exactly celebrating.

“At the moment, our business is probably down 50 percent,” he said gruffly.

He’s also an owner of Beach Seafood Market, a seafood retailer and restaurant, and Gulf Shrimp Inc., a wholesale business.

“Sales have been affected real bad for us,” Henderson said. “A lot of people they will tell you that they don’t want to buy any seafood from the Gulf _ shrimp, oysters or anything else. People are afraid of that.”

He said more marketing needs to be done to get the word out that seafood coming from the Gulf is safe. Through sampling, it’s tested and certified as safe before it gets to a grocery store, a fish market or a restaurant.

“If we are selling it, it’s safe,” Henderson said.

Much of the seafood his fleet catches in the Gulf is sold at grocery stores. Demand there is off, as it is at restaurants and fish markets, he said.

“I own 20 boats myself. Then we unload about 45 boats all together. We sell tractor-trailer loads of shrimp,” Henderson said.

He thinks people are backing off from buying his fish because of concerns over the chemicals in the dispersants BP dumped into the Gulf to try to control the massive oil spill.

Losses to the local fishing industry could be in the hundreds of thousands, Henderson estimates.

“I have relatives in Pennsylvania who thought we were shut down,” he said.

When he told him he was still operating, they said, ‘What about all that oil?’ ”

“This is going to harm the fishing industry for years to come,” said Dennis Henderson, a co-owner of Trico Shrimp Co. in Fort Myers Beach.

About 95 percent of Florida’s coastal waters were never affected by the oil spill, said Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“Most of the federal waters in and around Florida were also unimpacted,” he said. “Those areas that were impacted, much of that has now been removed from quarantine, with the dissipation of the oil and the capping of the well.”

Through the Food and Drug Administration, there have been 150 or more samples of seafood tested in Florida and none had unacceptable levels of oil or hydrocarbons, McElroy said.

As an extra precaution, a team of inspectors was trained and hired to sniff out oil in seafood in the affected states.

After the spill, Trico’s boats weren’t able to fish in federal waters in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana as they usually do before heading to Texas. That cost the local company a lot of money in fuel, when its fleet was forced to go elsewhere.

“You don’t do good when you are in new grounds, when you go some place you haven’t fished before,” Henderson said.

He expects to file a claim with BP in the coming days.

“We are trying to work out the figures,” he said. “You’ve got to figure out how bad things are.”

Henderson is worried about the longer-term effects of the spill, which dumped about 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf.

A federal government report estimated that 75 percent of the oil had either been captured, burned off, evaporated or broken down in the Gulf.

Henderson doesn’t believe that and wonders where the oil that’s still in the water will go.

Henderson questions how much oil may still be at the bottom of the Gulf and whether anyone knows where it is or will monitor it.

“This is going to harm the fishing industry for years to come,” he said.

Through advertising and the media, the Florida Department of Agriculture has worked hard to get the message out that the state’s seafood is safe. The campaign has included radio, TV and Internet ads. Research after the spill showed that seafood consumption dropped 20 percent to 30 percent in the Pensacola area, where tar balls washed ashore in June.

“The real test is going to be during tourist season here in Florida,” said Glen Brooks, president of the Gulf Fishermen’s Association in Florida.. “As far as them having the well capped, we are glad it’s capped and there is no more oil coming into the Gulf, but there is still millions of gallons of oil that is not accounted for that we are concerned about. We don’t believe it evaporated and disappeared.”

The state received $25 million from BP to help offset the spill’s harm to Florida’s tourism industry. The agriculture department got $250,000 of that money to promote the safety of Florida’s seafood.

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson is asking for more money – nearly $5 million – to support a 10-year plan to ensure the safety of Gulf seafood.

“We have not gotten any response at this point,” said McElroy, spokesman for the department.

As more time passes, fears should subside about the safety of Florida’s seafood, he said.

This time of year, the demand is usually not as high for seafood, said Glen Brooks, president of the Gulf Fishermen’s Association in Florida.

“The real test is going to be during tourist season here in Florida,” he said. “As far as them having the well capped, we are glad it’s capped and there is no more oil coming into the Gulf, but there is still millions of gallons of oil that is not accounted for that we are concerned about.”

“We don’t believe it evaporated and disappeared,” Brooks said.

He said only a small percentage of fishermen in Florida have filed claims with BP.

“I think most of the fishermen tried to keep working, regardless of the closed areas,” Brooks said.

Are you satisfied with BP’s fix of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

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It could be 10 years before the industry knows how much damage the oil spill has caused to fish. Only then, will it be clear how many of the younger fish survived the catastrophe.

Harry Looknanan Jr., a certified business analyst with the Small Business Development Center at Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero, said about half of the 11 applications the center has received for emergency bridge loans have come from fishermen or related businesses, some of whom have claimed their business is off by 50 percent.

The maximum loan amount is $25,000, and the minimum is $1,000. The state loans are meant to help keep businesses going as they wait for their claims to be paid by BP.

Howie Grimm, the owner of Grimm’s Stonecrab in Everglades City, said he’s not sure what to expect when stone crab season starts in October.

Stone crab season ended shortly after the BP disaster happened, so it didn’t hurt sales, he said.

He also operates a restaurant and has wholesale and retail operations in Everglades City. Customers are asking more questions about where the seafood comes from, and some are more reluctant to buy when they learn it’s from the Gulf, Grimm said.

“I’m not saying they are not buying,” he said. “But they are just a little more hesitant to buy.”

John Vorndran, director of purchasing for Pincher’s Crab Shack, which has eight restaurants in Southwest Florida, said the 30 or so local fishermen the restaurant contracts with work closer to the shore. So they weren’t affected by closures of federal waters as a result of the spill.

He said Pincher’s customers are asking more questions about the safety of seafood and where it came from, but business hasn’t really suffered. This time of year, the customers are mostly local residents, who are more aware that the oil never reached Southwest Florida.

Vorndran said the worst should be over for Pincher’s.

“If the spill would have continued it would have definitely scared us going into next season,” he said.

__ Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.

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