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Does the oil spill put seafood restaurants at risk?

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
The livelihoods of many people in Louisiana are tied to the fishing industry that's threatened by the oil spill.
The livelihoods of many people in Louisiana are tied to the fishing industry that's threatened by the oil spill.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NOAA is restricting commercial and recreational fishing along the Gulf Coast
  • Restaurant owners who depend on seafood are worried about the oil slick impacts
  • About 40 percent of the U.S. seafood is harvested from the Gulf Coast
  • Louisiana's economy and culture relies heavily on the availability of seafood

(CNN) -- The "single best bite of food" in Louisiana, according to Tommy Cvitanovich, is the charbroiled oyster soaked in butter, garlic and cheese. Then the tough little mollusk is grilled to a smoky perfection.

His two restaurants, both named Drago's, served 3 million of these delectable oysters last year.

Cvitanovich continues to serve the popular oysters to his customers. But with the oil spill disaster looming toward the Gulf Coast waters abundant with seafood, he and other restaurant owners are bracing for the worst possibilities: a shortage of seafood, price hikes and a public misperception that Louisiana seafood is dangerous.

"Everything in Louisiana is at risk right now," said the 51-year-old Cvitanovich. "Virtually every meal that comes from our kitchen is seafood. I am worried about the availability, the quality, the price."

It's too early to determine what impact April's deadly BP oil rig explosion will have on the nation's seafood and the restaurant industry. So far, precautionary fishing closures means there are fewer places to harvest seafood. That could be troubling news to a domestic seafood industry that has been pummeled by cheaper imports in recent years.

This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began restricting for 10 days commercial and recreational fishing along the Gulf Coast, an area that spans about 6,800 miles. Louisiana closed areas designated for special shrimping on Tuesday.

As officials are scrambling to contain the mushrooming leak, some restaurant owners are fretting about what it would mean for their businesses if oysters, shrimp, crab and finfish were not as available.

Depending on the season, about 40 percent of the nation's commercial seafood harvests come from the Gulf Coast, according to NOAA data from 2008.

"The Gulf Coast is such an important biologic and economic area in term of seafood production and recreational fishing," said Roy Crabtree, NOAA Fisheries Southeast regional administrator.

The National Restaurant Association, a group representing 380,000 restaurants across the country, has heard some complaints from restaurants in the New Orleans area. Restaurants in states far from the spill are even calling to stay updated on the availability of seafood, said Annika Stensson, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association.

She said it's premature to conclusively determine effects of the oil spill but predicts the accident will impact the "supply and price of seafood for restaurants nationwide that serve products from this area."

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"We are watching the situation for sure," she said. "We have heard some grumbling from some of our members in the Gulf Coast area."

Concerns are mounting rapidly in Louisiana where seafood is the lifeblood of the economy and culinary culture. Seafood recipes there are like an art form, ingrained into family cookbooks, passed down from one generation to the next, locals proudly say. Fried oyster Po-Boys (breadcrumb-crusted oysters inside two slices of French bread) and barbeque shrimp (a Louisiana classic where shrimp is dripped in pepper, Worchester sauce and butter) are among many of the famous dishes.

From the fisherman to the restaurant owners, they all depend on the availability of seafood from the Gulf.

Louisiana's seafood industry reels in $2.4 billion dollars annually. Louisiana ranks behind only one state -- Alaska -- when it comes to total commercial seafood production. Louisiana remains the No. 1 producer of shrimp, blue crab meat, and oysters, said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board.

The potential damage from the oil slick threatens as the state is battling the recession. Even worse, the summer months are typically the peak shrimping season for fishermen.

A majority -- about 70 percent -- of Louisiana's waters remain open for fishing, Smith said. For example, only six of the 32 oyster beds in Louisiana are prohibited from being harvested, but the rest are open to fisherman.

"The amount of impact has been minimal at this point," Smith said. "But if this thing [oil slick] sticks around, then we could have another scenario."

Louisiana restaurants may eventually feel the trickle-down effect from the spill, but most haven't experienced immediate impacts, said Wendy Waren, a spokeswoman at Louisiana Restaurant Association. Her association represents 7,500 restaurants in the state, and about two-thirds of them serve some kind of seafood.

Waren is anticipating a swarm of seafood festivals to continue this year with strong attendance, including the New Orleans Oyster Festival in June.

Only fishing zones east of the mouth of the Mississippi River have been shut off, closing off about 30 percent of the supply, experts say. In areas where fishing is no longer allowed, the impact is felt mostly by fishermen and dock workers who are unemployed.

"They cannot do their jobs and there is a domino effect here," said Amy Evans Streeter, an oral historian at Southern Foodways Alliance. "No jobs equals no money equals unpaid bills and struggling families."

Another big concern among restaurant goers and seafood lovers is whether the Gulf seafood is safe to consume. The NOAA has assured consumers the seafood products will be carefully inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"Don't worry about any of the products in retail stores" says Steven Wilson, chief quality officer of the seafood inspection program at the United States Department of Commerce. "This was all harvested and processed prior to the storm."

At Tommy Cvitanovich's restaurants Drago's, a New Orleans-area staple for 41 years, menu specialties like the shrimp and eggplant stack and the oyster pasta rely on locally harvested seafood. On Monday, despite the spill scare, he placed his bid on shrimp for the month of May. He said prices remained the same and the seafood was just as attainable as the month before.

So far, consumers have no need to worry or to stock up on Gulf seafood, fishing experts say. Seafood prices haven't spiked. Oysters, shrimp, and crabs are still available, say David Laverne, an economist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Laverne is still uncertain what will happen in the short term but says a price increase could happen, though he doesn't know how much. He pointed out that seafood imports could also curb shortages.

Environmental damage is also raising concerns. If the oil were to seep into Louisiana's precious estuaries that serve as nurseries for shrimp and other wildlife, the damage could affect future seafood production for years, said Martin Bourgeois, biologists with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

While the consequences of the oil spill are unclear, Louisiana restaurant owners know one thing: If the public believes the seafood may be contaminated, it can kill their business.

It feels like déjà vu for New Orleans's chef Frank Brigtsen, 55, who owns two restaurants in the area. When Hurricane Katrina flood waters ravaged the area in 2005, customers avoided ordering seafood at restaurants even after the state declared the seafood safe, he said. The stubborn public misperceptions about seafood put some owners out of business.

"We learned from Katrina, it's never just one thing," he said. "Our economy is very complicated and if any part of that is hurt, we will all suffer."

But as long as the seafood continues to be safe and available, Brigtsen will happily serve his seafood platter. The combination platter, which changes with the fishing seasons, offers six kinds of seafood including grilled drum fish, crawfish with jalapeno lime sauce and shrimp cornbread.

It's a dish he calls "a celebration of Louisiana seafood."

Kat Kinsman contributed to this report

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