As a New Orleans chef committed to preserving my region’s unique and robust food culture, I am eager for a complete recovery of the Gulf’s magnificent fishery in the wake of the BP oil spill. Yet I see it under pressure from something potentially even more damaging than BP’s millions of gallons of rogue oil: an ongoing panic over the safety of Gulf seafood.
Let me be clear: I am as concerned about contamination as anyone — especially since my livelihood depends on our surrounding foodshed. But state and federal officials are monitoring the waters and will close any fishing grounds that show signs of contamination. So far, 96 percent of federal waters have been declared safe and reopened to fishing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also just announced the results of an extensive study, which tested 1,735 samples of fish, oysters, crabs and shrimp. Only 13 showed even trace amounts — still far below any safety threshold — of residue from the chemicals used to disperse the oil. I wouldn’t be serving Gulf seafood at my restaurant — nor would I be eating it, which I am — if I weren’t completely confident it was safe.
Gulf fishermen need consumers’ support
Yet media reports suggest some consumers are avoiding these products. Harlon Pearce, chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, recently told the Wall Street Journal that grocery stores and restaurants around the U.S. have canceled orders. Cliff R. Hall, a fish supplier, told the Associated Press that national demand is down 50 to 75 percent. This adds bitter insult to the injury inflicted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
The BP oil spill was a devastating, manmade environmental disaster, among the worst in U.S. history. But food consumers will compound the spill’s damage if they don’t support the Gulf’s fishermen. If the individual fishers, shrimpers and oystermen — with generations of experience and expertise — are forced out of business, a centuries-old food tradition will perish. Reviving it will be next to impossible. This will be a loss not only to the Gulf communities, but also to the whole country.
Since the opening of Cochon in 2006, we have emphasized Gulf seafood on our menu. That hasn’t changed. I believe chefs like me have a responsibility to strengthen our regional food systems by supporting local farmers who are growing food responsibly, by purchasing meat from conscientious producers and by buying seafood that is sustainably harvested. At this moment, that ethos calls for serving safe, delicious, domestic, Louisiana Gulf shrimp, crabs, oysters and fish purchased from people whose way of life is endangered.
Gulf seafood isn’t just safe, it’s delicious
While the BP oil well has been killed, the Gulf’s future, both environmentally and economically, is uncertain. Though offshore waters have been deemed safe for fishing, vast swaths of our coastline are still undergoing cleanup. The way Louisianans carry on also will serve to either preserve or bury traditional ways of life here. If we want to continue the traditional fishing and aquaculture that has long characterized Louisiana coastal living, we must work to save our coastline.
I urge consumers and my peers in the restaurant industry nationwide to remember that Gulf seafood isn’t just safe — it’s delicious. Participating in events and supporting organizations focused on fishermen and the oil spill recovery are a place to start. But eating and serving seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is the only way to save a truly American way of life. Let’s not allow fear to magnify the financial hit the Gulf has already sustained. Together, we can ensure a vibrant future for healthy fisheries in the Gulf — and for one of our nation’s most vital and beloved foodways.
Stephen Stryjewski is the chef/partner of Cochon restaurant in New Orleans and board member of Chefs Collaborative, one of the founding voices steering the conversation in the local, sustainable food movement.