The BP oil disaster has been brutal for Harlon Pearce, the owner of Harlon's LA Fish & Seafood, one of Louisiana's largest seafood processors. Pearce is now paying 20 percent more than he did three months ago for his fresh, locally harvested shrimp and oysters--when he can get them at all. On many days he runs out of them and is forced to tap his dwindling frozen stockpile. At the same time, the nation's appetite for his famous shellfish and snapper has been sapped by fears of oil contamination. Pearce says it could take years for his business to bounce back. "Our brand is what's gonna get killed in this whole deal," he says.
As the chair of Louisiana's Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, Pearce is scrambling to protect himself and his industry from the spill, which he blames on BP for "not doing their job correctly." He's promoting better tracking of the Gulf catch for contamination and planning a national PR campaign to show that Louisiana seafood is safe to eat. He's doing everything except what might seem to be the most obvious thing: supporting the Obama administration's now-suspended ban on deepwater offshore oil drilling.
"I am not in favor of the moratorium," Pearce explains over the phone from Kenner, just west of New Orleans. "You've got to be down here to see and feel what I'm telling you. It's our brothers, uncles, and cousins that are working in the oil industry."
Last year, Louisiana's commercial fishermen caught 30 percent of the domestic seafood consumed in the United States and contributed $2.4 billion to the state economy. Now its 13,000 fishermen are reeling from the spill's environmental and economic impacts. Crab catches are off by 40 percent, shrimp by two-thirds, and commercial oysters could be wiped out by efforts to pump more freshwater into their brackish habitats to keep the oil at bay. Seventy percent of the Gulf remains open to fishing, but captains have been spending much of their time laying oil containment boom rather than fishing nets.
Nonetheless, since it was announced seven weeks ago, the six-month drilling moratorium has prompted an outcry among the very crabbers and shrimpers that it was meant to protect. (A federal judge in New Orleans struck down the moratorium on Tuesday; the Obama administration is appealing his ruling.) The Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board says it hasn't heard from a single Louisiana fisherman who wants to stop oil drilling on the deepwater rigs, which employ between 6,000 to 8,000 people. "If you've seen Grand Isle or those [other fishing communities], you've seen how much oil and gas and seafood coexist in this state," says Ewell Smith, the board's executive director. Emerging from a discussion on the drilling ban held on Tuesday by the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, the state petroleum industry's trade group, Smith paints the ban as a costly overreaction: "If a Delta airline plane crashes, do you shut down the entire industry, much less shut down just Delta? You don't do that. You'd cripple the entire nation's economy. And that's kind of what we're doing here."
In addition to supporting more drilling, Louisiana's commercial fishing interests have declined to back recent bills in the legislature that would have made it easier to for the state to go after BP. Bills that would have enabled Louisiana to extract punitive damages from the company and tax it to pay for coastal restoration failed to pass this week before state legislators adjourned for the summer. "That's not a fight that we want to pick up," says Eric Sunstrom, a lobbyist for Harlon's LA Fish & Seafood and the Louisiana Bowfishing fishermen's Association. "Other folks can fight that fight. We just want to take care of the fishermen, make sure the industry gets back up, and make sure our brand and our market isn't wiped to imported seafood--that's the biggest problem."