Gulf of Mexico Shrimpers, Fishermen Go Back to Work

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, August 16, 2010 (ENS) – With BP’s damaged Deepwater Horizon oil well capped since July 15, the seafood harvesting industry in the Gulf of Mexco is slowly returning to life.

This morning the first commercial shrimping season since the oil spill opened in Louisiana, and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke was there to mark the occasion.

Making his third visit to the Gulf of Mexico region since June, Locke toured a seafood processing plant this morning in Lafitte, Louisiana, a fishing village about 25 miles south of New Orleans.

Michael Chan, manager of Lafitte Frozen Foods, said business is down about 80 percent because of the oil spill.

“We’ve been getting shrimp from Texas, Mississippi, the Carolinas, and a little bit from Alabama. But, hopefully, we’ll be getting it from Louisiana in a few days,” Chan said.

Locke took a 20-minute tour of the plant, where machines separated, peeled and washed shrimp from North Carolina and Texas.

“We need to let the American people know that the seafood being harvested from the Gulf is safe to eat,” Locke said. “I think there have been a lot of misperceptions out there. A lot of testing is done before we open state and federal waters to fishing. We’re being very thoughtful, very careful and very deliberate.”

After the tour, Locke had lunch with seafood industry representatives and restaurant owners affected by the spill at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant in suburban Metairie.

At an economic roundtable in Metairie, Locke announced $31.3 million in coastal restoration and economic development grants for Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.

Fresh Louisiana shrimp is a welcome sight in the kitchen. August 16, 2010. (Photo by Dulamae)

“These grants are another sign of this administration’s commitment to help the Gulf Coast’s economy and environment recover in the wake of the BP oil spill,” Locke said.

A $30.7 million restoration grant, awarded to the Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration by Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will fund the restoration of a critical barrier headland near Port Fourchon, Louisiana.

The headland, which experiences some of the highest shoreline retreat rates in the nation, protects vital bay and wetland habitat and property from storm surge and erosion. Louisiana’s coastal habitat is the state’s first line of defense during storms, reducing the devastating effects of wind, waves, and flooding.

In addition, Locke announced a $600,000 effort by Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to fund the deployment of 21 assessment and evaluation teams to communities affected by the BP oil spill.

The 21 teams are made up of economic development practitioners, industry experts, and government officials that will conduct in-depth analyses of critical issues faced by the impacted communities, provide recommendations, and suggest potential solutions to issues of industry migration, workforce skills, small business needs, and infrastructure access and management.

Two teams were deployed today to two counties in Florida. Two teams earlier were deployed in pilot assessments in two coastal Louisiana parishes.

In Baton Rouge today, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, LDWF, in coordination with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, ordered an emergency reopening of commercial fishing areas that were closed due to the oil spill.

Commercial fishing reopened for finfish in portions of state waters in Lafourche, Terrebonne, Plaquemines and Jefferson parishes effective Saturday, while the shrimp closure was lifted today.

All commercial and recreational closures east of Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River remain unchanged. Those areas closed to commercial fishing now match the areas closed to recreational fishing allowing LDWF enforcement agents to better monitor closed areas.

LDWF Secretary Robert Barham ordered these re-openings following the completion of comprehensive testing by the FDA.

The federal food safety agency advised that following extensive sensory testing and analytical chemistry results, the seafood samples tested from previously closed areas are safe for consumption.

These openings do not include the commercial harvest of crabs and oysters. The FDA testing method for crabs takes longer to process, as such LDWF Secretary Barham chose a phased approach for opening commercial fishing.

These openings do not include the commercial harvest of oysters, as this activity is regulated by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

Federal waters are also returning to use as commercial and recreational fishing grounds. On August 10, NOAA reopened 5,144 square miles of Gulf waters after consultation with the FDA and under a reopening protocol agreed to by NOAA, the FDA, and the Gulf states.

The closed area now covers 52,395 miles, or 22 percent of the federal waters in the gulf, down from 37 percent at its height. On July 22, NOAA reopened 26,388 square miles of gulf waters off the Florida Peninsula.

At its closest point, the area to be reopened is about 115 miles northeast of BP’s Deepwater Horizon wellhead. Since July 3, NOAA data have shown no oil in the area, and U.S. Coast Guard observers flying over the area in the last 30 days have not observed any oil.

Trajectory computer models show the area is at a low risk for future exposure to oil and fish caught in the area and tested by NOAA experts have shown no signs of contamination.

“Consumer safety is NOAA’s primary concern, which is why we developed rigorous safety standards in conjunction with the FDA and the Gulf states to ensure that seafood is safe in the reopened area,” said Dr. Jane Lubchenco, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “We are confident that Gulf fish from this area is safe to eat and pleased that recreational and commercial fisherman can fish these waters again.”

From June 27 through July 20, NOAA sampled 153 finfish, including grouper, snapper, tuna and mahi mahi, from the area. Sensory and chemical testing of these finfish followed the methodology and procedures in the re-opening protocol. Sensory analysis found no detectable oil or dispersant odors or flavors, and results of chemical analysis well below the levels of concern.

“We know how important it is to the culture and economy of this region to get back out on the water and be able to once again harvest the seafood that the Gulf is famous for,” said Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of food and drugs. “But our top priority in the wake of this disaster must be the safety of the fish that makes it to market. We are confident that the proper processes have been followed, and that consumers can feel good once again serving their families seafood from these waters.”

NOAA will continue to take samples for testing from the newly re-opened area, and the agency has also implemented dockside sampling to test fish caught throughout the gulf by commercial fishermen.

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