You think a seafood dock smells bad? Try walking in to the New Orleans Fish House. More than a dozen workers in white aprons and knee-high rubber boots feverishly sharpen knives to clean puppy drum and hand-cut tuna steaks.
Michael Ketchum is director for national retail sales at the Fish House. He convinces grocery stores and restaurants that Gulf seafood is the way to go.
“We supply almost every restaurant in the city: We supply Acme Oyster House, Commander’s Palace, Emeril’s, the Brennans’ restaurants. We’re running 300 to 500 deliveries a day.”
Five years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Ketchum says the reputation of Gulf seafood is back, with the help of QR codes — those square barcodes that look like static-y TV screens. Looking at a bag of frozen shrimp, Ketchum describes the process. “On the back of each bag of product is a QR code, it’s right by our UPC code, and the shopper can scan this code with their smart phone and it will pull up a map of where this product was harvested from.”
The more you know exactly where something comes from, Ketchum says, the more you trust it.
“If you look where the oil spill was, and look at the questions people had, you knew there was a disconnect between what products were caught where. I had someone ask me if crawfish and catfish were affected. Those two items weren’t harvested in the Gulf!” They’re freshwater species.
So people trust the seafood again, but now there’s a new problem: Supply. Restaurants can change menus when an order falls through. But for Ketchum’s big box clients like Target and Costco, that doesn’t fly.
“When you’re talking to a nice retail chain, you’re not talking 200-300 pounds, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of pounds of product. They want to know if they plan it out and run ads that it’s going to be there.”
Part of the seafood industry’s full-time job is to say “Hey, it’s going to be there,” like ads put out by the Louisiana Seafood and Marketing Board. Their campaigns brand Gulf seafood as a specialty product. The hope is that an “Authentic Louisiana” label will get fishermen a better price.
Tony Goutierrez is sorting crabs on his dock in Hopedale, Louisiana, about an hour outside New Orleans. He’s not happy with the day’s catch.
“You see what we had this morning — that was $220 worth of crabs. And you had $100 worth of bait, and $100 worth of fuel to get here. So it doesn’t add up.”
Crabs seemed fine right after the spill. But for the past few years, Goutierrez is pulling up empty traps. He says the dispersants used to sink the oil to the bottom of the gulf destroyed the beds where crabs lay eggs. Now, fewer areas to catch crabs mean more competition. “Everyone’s being shoved between Hopedale Bayou and Point Lahache- it’s putting too many fishermen in one spot.”
There’s the irony: after the spill, people needed persuading to eat the available seafood. Now consumers want it, and it’s hard to find. That’s why Goutierrez is struggling to meet the demand.
Over in the French Quarter, the 135-year-old P+J Oyster Company is having the same problem. “They’re saying that the oyster landings are the same as what they were pre-oil spill, and there’s no way,” says owner Al Sunseri. “If it was, we would not have a 300 percent increase on the dock for the price of oysters.”
For the first time in its century-old existence, P+J has lost a lot of customers.
“We did fine after World War One, World War Two, during the Depression, recessions, environmental issues like hurricanes and natural disasters,” lists Sunseri. “Until this happened.”
Back at wholesaler New Orleans Fish House, Ketchum also worries about long-term supply. “I may be trying to build a career here and it may go away, who knows. I’m banking 2015 sales on product that’s not even born yet, not even harvested. I know historically it’s been there, but now we’ve done something to the environment.”
Five years after the spill, Gulf seafood is probably safe to eat, if you can find it.