Courtesy of the Chimneys Reaturant, Gulfport, Mississippi.
Fresh Gulf Coast fish dressed with a delicate sauce and paired with asparagus.

Resurrecting the Gulf

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Gulf Coast seafood industry claws back from years of disasters and negative perception.
By Sam Oches January 2013 Food Safety

Say “Gulf Coast” these days, and two things likely come to folks’ minds: hurricanes and the BP oil spill. But many in the Gulf are hoping Americans, particularly restaurant operators and chefs, will soon think about something else: seafood.

The Gulf Coast seafood industry is in full-on recovery mode nearly three years after the Deepwater Horizon oilrig explosion caused hundreds of millions of gallons of oil to spill into Gulf waters. While industry insiders say seafood sales are back at pre-spill levels in the five Gulf States, hesitation to use the Gulf’s products remains among foodservice professionals across the rest of the U.S.

“Early on, 80 percent of people were concerned about the safety [of the food],” says Mike Voisin, CEO of Motivatit Seafood, based in Houma, Louisiana. “Having a pipe spew out oil on the bottom corner of the TV station for however many days the event lasted … doesn’t bode well for your product.”

“The challenge is the perception that’s lingered from the Deepwater Horizon,” adds Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. “We knew it would take time to overcome that.”

But Voisin, Smith, and other Gulf Coast seafood professionals hope that time has come and gone. To help quash any lingering doubt, seafood representatives from the five states that comprise the Gulf Coast shoreline—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida—have banded together as the Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition. The Coalition, assembled through grant money, aims to promote and create demand for Gulf Coast seafood.

The Coalition has a seemingly tall order on its hands. According to Coalition statistics, some 30 percent of consumers still state that the oil spill affects their decision whether to buy Gulf Coast seafood—even though all scientific testing has shown that the shrimp, oysters, scallops, lobsters, crabs, and finfish are perfectly safe.

“First and foremost, from the outset of the incident, safety has been the primary, No. 1 driver in everything we do, and still is today,” Smith says. “Without the safety, nothing else matters. When they suggested we close our waters, we embraced that. When they opened the waters, we embraced that as well, of course. The FDA commissioner, [Margaret] Hamburg, said the seafood from the Gulf is the most-tested seafood in the world.”

The seafood industry in the Gulf is also rebounding from 2010’s massive closures. Voisin, who is the Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition’s chairman, says that at the peak, as many as one-third of Gulf fisheries were closed in response to the oil spill. He adds that 40 of the 44 processing plants in Louisiana closed for the year after the spill.

Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries in Bon Secour, Alabama, and vice chairman of the Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition, says these kinds of closures—combined with the loss of harvesters and processors who voluntarily shut down business to receive claims from BP—took Gulf Coast seafood off the radar for many restaurants and distributors.

That disappearance was not insignificant for an industry that has a combined annual income of $26.9 billion and a more than $60 billion sales influence nationally—not to mention one that produces 70 percent of the nation’s oysters and 69 percent of domestic shrimp.

“If you’re off the market for a period of time, people either have to stop offering your product to customers, or stop putting it in their display case or on their menu until they can get it back, or they substitute something for it,” Nelson says. “And usually in today’s world, they substitute, because they don’t want to miss a sale any more than you do. Just because your product is not available doesn’t mean they’re going to go without.”

Nelson says many operators turned to pond-raised seafood, which is mostly imported and often cheaper than home-grown seafood, but which is not as sustainable as Gulf Coast seafood and has a weaker flavor profile.

“It’s not that [restaurants] are unsympathetic to natural and man-made disasters, it’s just that business is business, and if you’ve got an alternative that can pledge to be more continuous than you can, then sometimes they get the sale and you don’t,” Nelson says.

Luckily for the Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition, the timing may be perfect to rebuild the Gulf Coast seafood brand. Most other protein commodities are likely facing cost increases, making seafood an attractive menu alternative. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Consumer Price Index Forecast, beef prices are expected to increase 4–5 percent in 2013, while pork and poultry are expected to increase 2.5–3.5 and 3–4 percent, respectively.

“When [operators’] costs start going up, they’re going to start exploring other opportunities, and they may be surprised with the cost of Gulf Coast seafood and the options that they have there,” Smith says. “Not only that, if they’re working with a commodity product like chicken, and all their competitors in the same market are working with the same product, and they bring in Louisiana seafood or Gulf seafood, then they’re differentiating themselves in their own marketplace.”

Gulf Coast seafood also fits into the healthy-dining trend that has stormed foodservice the last few years. According to the Coalition, its seafood is low in saturated fat and contains high-quality protein, vitamins B6 and B12, and omega-3 fatty acids. Some varieties are also natural sources of vitamin D.

The Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition hopes to promote its products’ nutrition, availability, and distinct flavor—“The flavor profile of our product is very unique to our region because of the nutrient-rich waters that we have,” Smith says—through several means. Chief among them is an incentive program that offers discounts to operators and distributors to sell and promote the product.

The Coalition is also using chef partnerships and other educational opportunities to fight back against the perception that Gulf seafood is tainted by the oil spill.

“The closer to the Gulf of Mexico … the more informed [people] are, because they understand the level of testing that goes on, they understand that all the test results come back good for us,” Smith says. “That knowledge is there. But as you get away from our states, that knowledge diminishes, and it takes more time to get the word out.”

If the quality of the product doesn’t sell operators on Gulf Coast seafood, the Coalition hopes the region’s heritage, resilience, and made-in-America story do.

Just like the national economy, the Gulf Coast seafood industry has likely seen its worst days. But Voisin isn’t afraid to state the importance of operator buy-in to get the community up and running again.

“We were knocked to our knees, we were crawling,” Voisin says. “We’re up walking now, and we’re beginning to jog as a community. The challenge is the market and people’s view of us in that market. Once we overcome the perceptions, and get those slots back in the marketplace, then we can run again.”