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Fish from the Gulf is still plentiful but the fisherman arent
Atlanta Highway Seafood Market owner Phuong Le places a pile of fried popcorn shrimp on a cooling rack Tuesday. Le purchased the shrimp from the Gulf. - photo by SARA GUEVARA
Alice’s Oyster Casserole

2 tablespoons butter
1 pint oysters, drained
1 cup half-and-half
1 sleeve saltine crackers
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 400 F. Simmer oysters in butter until the oysters curl. Add the half and half milk, remove from heat. Crumble the sleeve of saltine crackers and add to the butter and oyster mixture. Set aside. Spray an 8-inch-by-8-inch-by-2-inch casserole dish with a nonstick cooking spray. Spread oyster mixture into pan and sprinkle the top with shredded cheddar cheese. Bake in 400 F oven for 12 to 15 minutes.

Leavins Seafood

Phong Le, owner of Atlanta Highway Seafood Market, said he is still getting shrimp, oysters and other seafood from the warm Gulf waters, but the fresh seafood is harder to come by these days.

And it’s not because all the fishing areas are closed to commercial vessels after the BP oil spill — 65 percent of the Gulf waters are still open to fishing, according to NOAA. Instead, it’s because many Gulf fishermen are now working for BP.

Seafood suppliers say they notice the decrease in product, too.

“We’re having the same struggle; a lot of them are working for BP so our productivity is down,” said Ellis Sizemore of Leavins Seafood in Apalachicola, Fla., which specializes in oysters. “One day you might have three or four boats out, and the next day you might not have any. I think every business around here that employs people is having problems with it.”

The “Vessels of Opportunity” program run by BP employs commercial and charter fishing boats along the Gulf in efforts to clean up the oil spill. Boats are used for towing and installing “booms,” helping with oil skimming and burn-offs, finding tar balls and transporting supplies and personnel, according to BP’s website.

And while the program does get fishermen to work, there are fewer fishermen catching shrimp, fish or oysters.

“In certain locations they (fishermen) can actually make more money per day working for BP than they can going fishing,” said Glen Brooks, the president of The Gulf Fishermen Association based in Clearwater, Fla.

“They are making good money doing it (helping with the clean up), how long will it last? Nobody knows,” Sizemore added.  

To date, more than 3,000 vessels have been hired across four states — Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida — according to BP.

More than 500 miles up the road from the Gulf, at Atlanta Highway Seafood Market, Le said he’s feeling the effects.

Even though his market is stocked with Gulf seafood, he said oyster prices have gone up 15 to 20 percent, and shrimp has gone up 80 to 90 percent.

Le said, though, the seafood is completely safe, and locals should still have faith in Gulf seafood.

“I want people to know to eat the seafood — they go through so many steps before they get to us, everybody is inspected,” he said. “People don’t want to take any chances right now, and these fish houses don’t want to take the chance of buying bad fish.”

Added Brooks, who has a fleet of boats that fish for snapper and grouper, “The fisheries are doing a lot of testing, not just on fish but actually offshore in the waters.”

They are testing water in the closed areas, and they are testing waters outside of the closed areas,” he said. “That’s going on pretty much on a daily basis; it’s widespread throughout the Gulf.”

The compensation the fishermen are making is lucrative, but the Vessels of Opportunity program doesn’t provide the same opportunity for seafood companies based in the Gulf.

“We have transitioned into basically, about 90 percent, into imported products,” said Rudy Lesso III, of R.A. Lesso Seafood Company in Biloxi, Miss. “They (fishermen now working for BP) can make $3,000 or $4,000 a day, which is far more than you can make shrimping and a lot less work, too.

“It’s a Catch-22, because if you don’t have the availability to harvest a product, that hurts me,” Lesso added. “For the last 10 years we’ve been promoting wild caught American shrimp to battle the imports.”

Lesso’s shrimp is now coming from Ecuador, Peru and Honduras, he said.

Most of Lesso’s business came from distributing shrimp to Mississippi casinos and other locations throughout the United States. The business used to average 8 million to 10 million pounds of seafood a year.

A natural disaster, he said, would be better than battling an oil spill.

“I’d rather deal with a hurricane because I know that would go away.”

Luckily for Sizemore, the oil so far has stayed to the West of Florida, for the most part.

“If they don’t get it stopped, there is no telling what will happen,” he said. “We went from seven to eight tractor trailer loads a week to this week, we are down to two. We may have to go to one if it keeps on. It’s very bad.”

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