NEW ORLEANS – Shrimpers returned to Louisiana waters Monday for the first commercial season since the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, uncertain what crude may still be in the water and what price they'll get for the catch if consumers worry about possible lingering effects from the massive BP spill.
The spill has put a crimp in the fishing industry in a state that ranks first in the nation in producing shrimp, blue crab, crawfish and oysters, a $318-million-a year business in Louisiana. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke planned to visit the state Monday to lunch with fishermen and talk to seafood industry representatives.
Perhaps the biggest fear is that some fisherman might try to sell oil-contaminated shrimp and scare consumers away again after prices crashed once already this summer.
"If you see oily shrimp, you got to throw them back over. Go somewhere else. It's all you can do. And you hope everyone else does the same," said Dewayne Baham, 49, a shrimper from Buras.
Louisiana shrimp prices rose soon after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering the spill that eventually spewed 206 million gallons of oil from BP's blown-out well. The price spike was fed by fears that the shrimp would soon be unavailable.
However, despite state and federal assurances that seafood reaching the market was safe, demand dropped and prices crashed a month ago, said Harlon Pearce, a seafood dealer and head of the state's seafood promotion board.
Ravin Lacoste of Theriot, said he believes his fellow shrimpers know better than to turn in a bad catch.
"If you put bad shrimp on the market — we in enough trouble now with our shrimp," Lacoste said. "You might can go in the closed waters and catch more shrimp. But it ain't worth it."
Pearce did what he could over the weekend to allay fears over safety. On Friday, he was in a group that set out with several fishermen on a test run around Grand Isle and Barataria Bay.
They trawled several areas, pulling up nets that held shrimp, mud, jellyfish or driftwood — all without the signs or telltale smell of oil.
Seafood testing begins when there's no longer visible oil in a particular area. First, inspectors smell samples for oil. Then comes testing at federal or state laboratories. To reopen seafood harvesting, the samples must test below Food and Drug Administration-set levels of concern for 12 different potential cancer-causing substances. BP also used chemical dispersants to break up the crude, but the government has not yet developed a test for the materials in seafood.
Shrimpers also are concerned about how much they'll be able to make on their product.
"I don't think people are worried so much about the resource, but the price," said Rusty Gaude, fishery agent for LSU Sea Grant Program.
And fishermen need to know what waters are open.
Slowly, more and more waters closed because of the spill are reopening. However, shrimping remains forbidden in federal waters off Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and most of the catches have come off Texas and Florida, said Roy Crabtree, the regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service's southeast region.
Commercial shrimpers are heading out as the drilling of a relief well meant to plug BP's runaway well permanently nears completion.
Once the relief well is complete, a so-called bottom kill procedure can begin, in which mud and cement would plug the well from below the seafloor.
Engineer John Wright has never missed his target over the years, successfully drilling 40 relief wells that were used to plug leaks around the world. People along the Gulf Coast and others are hoping he can make it 41-for-41.
"Anyone who has ever worked extremely hard on a long project wants to see it successfully finished, as long as it serves its intended purpose," Wright, 56, who is leading the team drilling the primary relief well, said in a lengthy e-mail exchange with The Associated Press.
BP began work on its primary relief well in early May. But about two weeks ago, around the time the company had done a successful static kill pumping mud and cement into the top of the well, executives and the government began signaling that the bottom kill procedure might not be needed.
But retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the spill, said the relief well would be finished so the well could be killed. The bottom kill won't be started until at least next weekend.
Despite the waters reopening, many fishermen distrust state wildlife officials and may be reluctant to head out right away, said Patrick Hue, 49, a shrimper out of Buras.
"Nobody wants to rush into this and then someone gets sick on the seafood and the first thing you know, no one wants to buy our seafood," he said.
Seafood dealer Pearce, however, said many shrimpers will be unable to resist.
"Opening day is like a religion to these people," he said. "It's a way of life down here."
Associated Press writers Lauran Neergaard in Washington, D.C., Harry R. Weber and Tom Breen in New Orleans, video journalist Mark Carlson in Buras, and photographer Gerald Herbert in Grand Isle contributed to this story.