Seafood businessman says misperception of seafood still affected by oil spill

Published 1:59 pm Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Those in the seafood industry, including a local seafood restaurant, say their businesses are still impacted by the giant Gulf oil spill, even a year after it happened.

It was exactly a year ago today that the BP oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, exploded and sank, killing 11 workers.

It would become the largest oil spill disaster in U.S. history, the broken well a mile deep, spewing 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico before being capped, which took four months to accomplish.

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Ocean experts in an Associated Press survey say the Gulf is back to normal, although they are not sure about the long-term impact.

But one local seafood businessman says the public is still affected by the spill, at least psychologically, if in no other way.

“Some parts of the public still think that it is not safe to eat seafood,” says David Wilkinson, manager of New Orleans Fish House at Liberty Road and Mississippi Highway 43 North. “But that is absolutely false. Gulf Coast seafood is safe to eat.”

He said the misperception still persists, and, he adds that he believes BP should take out advertisements on radio and television and in newspapers, telling the public how safe it is to eat seafood. The oil company did have a full-page ad in the Sunday Picayune Item displaying shrimp and assuring the public that Gulf Coast seafood is safe to eat.

“Our business is up right now because of Easter,” Wilkinson said, “but compared to pre-disaster business, sales are down.” However, he said his market will sell hundreds of sacks of crawfish, a freshwater delicacy not threatened by the oil spill, during the Easter holidays here. “While overall, sales are down, Easter is one our best times of the year,” he added.

His restaurant was started about a year-and-a-half ago, about six months before the oil catastrophe hit the Gulf, and it has been a struggle, he said. “We opened in November and it happened in April, and business went down.”

“Right now catfish (a farm-grown, freshwater fish) are moving up. They just recently have gone up $1 a pound,” he said.

The New Orleans Fish House is a subsidiary of the Louisiana company with the same name. The Louisiana-based company is one of the largest seafood distributors in the United States and the largest in Louisiana.

The company is owned by Billy Borges, and Wilkinson has worked for Borges for 21 years in the seafood business. Wilkinson has 12 employees at the Picayune restaurant. He said BP has helped his employees.

He said Borges’ company and the Picayune restaurant buy seafood all over Mississippi and Louisiana. “We purchase seafood all along the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf Coast, and what we get is clean and safe,” said Wilkinson. “It is safe to eat seafood.”

“We are a full-line seafood market and restaurant,” he added.

Associated Press reporters recently fanned out along the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida Gulf Coast and came back with stories of how the people want to go back to being normal.

The New Orleans Fish House distributes seafood and purchases it all along those coastlines, and also ships Gulf Coast seafood to the rest of the nation.

Reporters said that at every milepost, the Gulf Coast’s “bounty and resilience” are evident.

“People, voicing faith in the Gulf’s power, are eager to tell anyone who will listen that their seafood is safe to eat, that tourists are returning, that the crisis was overblown — that they will not be bowed,” reported the Associated Press.

Wilkinson, here in Picayune, reflected the same sentiments: “We have never given up and never will. Gulf Coast seafood is safe and clean, and the people need to know that.”