Mardi Gras Gulf Seafood
Will Mardi Gras Revelers Feast on Gulf Seafood?
by Betwa Sharma
NEW ORLEANS — As the Mardi Gras season descends over the city, the folks in the seafood business are holding their breath to see whether the tourists will, once again, dig fervently into the city’s spread of fish, oysters, shrimp and crabs.
“We don’t know yet. … We’ll have to see what happens,” said Mickey Harrison, the night manager at the Cafe Pontalba, situated near Jackson Square, a landmark park in the heart of the French Quarter.
Approximately 71 percent of consumers still believe that Gulf seafood is not completely safe, according to latest survey done on the impacts of the massive BP oil spill in April. Most of the visitors are arriving this weekend in preparation for Mardi Gras on Fat Tuesday.
“That’s what I thought as well,” said David Phipps, who had come down from Salt Lake City for the revelries. “If I go home with cancer, I’ll be worried.”
Since the vacation started, however, David and his party have been digging into the seafood with abandon.
His wife, Lynette, said, “He’s been complaining about it for the last six months, but after we got here we haven’t even thought about it. … We’re having a great time.”
Along with the local fishermen and seafood suppliers, the restaurant business also suffered when prime fishing areas were closed because of the spill. Eateries have only recently started recovering from the seafood hiatus.
Van Joseph, who has been a waiter for more than 20 years, recalls that weekly shifts were cut down to half last year, and he had to take up another job, building houses, to make ends meet.
“Business dropped by 50 to 55 percent. … It affected our livelihood dramatically,” he said. “No business, no work, no money.”
Joseph said that his restaurant, The Gumbo Pot, increased food prices by 10 percent, which is still the current rate. “People stay away from seafood even today,” he said. “It’s going to take years to make a full recovery.”
New Orleans was only halfway through recovering from Hurricane Katrina when the BP oil spill swept the Gulf of Mexico. Its impact, the locals say, was more psychological than physical.
In terms of tourists, it was the slowest summer since Hurricane Katrina happened in 2005. People are hoping that this first Mardi Gras after the spill brings in big crowds to boost both the economy and morale of the city.
Tourism, or the hospitality industry, as it is called here, is a more than $9 billion industry for Louisiana but it has been plagued by a “perception” problem in the past few years.
Just when a big campaign to get back tourists post-Katrina seemed to be working, the city had to launch another nationwide and global drive to control the image damage from the spill.
Using $5 million from BP, the city launched a TV and print ad campaign to dispel concerns that the city was dunked in oil. “Things in New Orleans are normal. Well, our normal,” said one poster.
Before Katrina, an average of 8.5 million tourists visited every year. That number dropped to 3.7 million in 2006 but came back up to 7.5 million in 2009. The post-BP numbers are not out yet.
After the spill, restaurants moved quickly to get seafood from other parts of the U.S., which was more expensive. Although restaurants are getting their hands on more Gulf seafood now, the prices remain high. “It is costing us more and we’re not moving the product so quickly,” said Harrison.
The manager recalled that his restaurant didn’t serve oysters for eight months after the spill, and even now smaller but pricier oysters were on the menu. “It’s not what our customers are used to,” he said. “People are starting to eat more, but it’s not like before.”
Even though the seafood from the Gulf states has increased, the local product is still limited. “It feels kind of devastating that it’s not from Louisiana,” said Katherine Nguyen, the manager of Stanley restaurant in the French Quarter, which specializes in oysters.
BP has promised half a billion dollars for long-term research, but there is little knowledge yet about the long-term consequences of the oil spill. “That is a long journey,” said Mike Utsler, chief operating officer of BP Gulf Coast Restoration Organization.
The local consumers tend to be fiercely loyal to Louisiana product and they always ask where it’s from. Many of them refuse to order seafood if it’s not from close by.
George Barisich, an out-of-work fisherman, wears a shirt that makes a gibe at BP with the sentiment, “Bringing oil to American shores like never before.”
Barisich says that when he goes out with his buddies, they always ask where the seafood is from. If turns out to be from Thailand instead of the U.S., he said, “I would eat a steak.”
The sense of pride has intensified in the face of adversity. “Our oysters, when they’re ripe, it’s hard to beat them,” said Al Sunseri, head of P&J Oyster Co., the oldest oyster processing company in the U.S.