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Safety of Gulf Seafood Still An Issue for Tourism Despite Rigorous Testing

By Rhonda Miller | Published 20 Apr 2011 11:17am | comments
Kerry Hudson stops on her lunch break to buy some crab at Desporte & Sons Seafood in Biloxi.

Today marks one year since the nation’s worst oil spill threatened the marine life and livelihood of the Gulf Coast. MPB’s Rhonda Miller reports state and business leaders in Mississippi say they’re still struggling to erase the perception of tainted seafood.

When you walk in to Desporte & Sons Seafood in Biloxi at lunch time, you almost forget images of oil-soaked birds that made people around the world queasy at the thought of Gulf seafood.
Buckets of shrimp are poured one after another onto mounds of ice. There’s a steady stream of people getting bags or coolers of seafood to go. There’s a line at the lunch counter ordering fish sandwiches, spicy shrimp jambalaya and seafood gumbo.

Kerry Hudson of St. Martin is on her lunch break. No seafood fear in Hudson . She knows what she wants.
"The blue lump crab. I got a recipe off the calendar... Mississippi blue crab quiche," Hudson said. "I’m making it for a potluck at church, because they said it was safe. We’ve been eating it for six or seven months now and we’re not blue yet."

Sean Desporte is one of the owners of the 115-year-old family seafood business. Desporte says, it’s early in the season, but so far, so good.

"It’s starting right now, the tourists are starting to come back," Desporte said. "Hopefully it’ll be a lot better year than last year. Last year we were down 40 or 50 percent."

The business sells seafood to restaurants, hotels and casinos, as well as to walk-in customers and diners in the small café. Desporte says safe seafood is everything in the business, because in a good week, they sell 20 to 30 thousand pounds of shrimp.

Desporte says even with business picking up now, he knows the perception of contaminated seafood is still out there.
"We are still hearing it a lot. A lot of people are asking, 'Hey, are you sure it doesn’t have oil?' Or, 'Are you sure it doesn’t have this?' We get hundreds of phone calls every day, people asking. local people, people at the casinos. People out-of-state are asking if it’s safe now. They’re thinking about getting it shipped over to them. We Fed Ex. People at the casinos like to come by get an ice chest to take back with them."

At seafood testing laboratories in Pascagoula, a lab technician unwraps the foil protecting a fresh tuna and begins slicing off samples of the fish. Scientists at these National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration labs do smell and taste tests and use state-of-the-art technology to examine seafood for chemicals.

Walt Dickhoff is one of the scientists from NOAA Fisheries. Dickhoff was at the Pascagoula seafood lab recently .

"The Gulf seafood is probably the most tested seafood in history," Dickhoff said. "We’re continuing testing today for the PAHs, the hydrocarbons from the oil, and for dispersant. I’m completely confident the seafood is safe. I’m looking forward to having some for lunch. I’d bring some home to feed to my family."

At the Department of Marine Resources in Biloxi, Commissioner James Taylor has seen all the test results and knows Gulf seafood is safe. But Taylor owns two charter fishing boats and says business has dropped dramatically.

"It’s not the same as it was before the oil spill," Taylor said. "We’re still not booking a lot of trips like before the spill, but we’re getting some, things are better."

This season, Taylor had five charters by mid-April, compared to 15 by this time last year.

"The perception’s what’s wrong. I fish tournaments, in Central America and different parts of the world, and that’s the number one question I get asked, "Is the seafood safe? Is the fish good?" I fished a tournament up in Virginia last year in August and that’s all I heard. They didn't ask me how are you doing, how's your health. How's the seafood? And the perception is it’s not alright, still, with a lot of people."

Taylor is convinced Gulf seafood is safe. He bought 200 pounds of shrimp last fall, after the oil spill. The shrimp are in his freezer. He plans to be eating a lot of Gulf shrimp in the next few months. Taylor is doing his part to get the word out that Gulf seafood is safe. It’s a message he hopes will be heard around the world. 

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Kerry Hudson stops on her lunch break to buy some crab at Desporte & Sons Seafood in Biloxi.


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