- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

President Obama is doing stomach stimulus this week as he eats his way across the Midwest, but exactly a year ago he had more riding on the presidential palate as he ate his way across the Gulf of Mexico coast, trying to revive the region’s tourism and seafood industries one shrimp po’ boy at a time.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion killed 11 people, and the resulting spill belched nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the bountiful Gulf waters over late spring and early summer 2010 as the Macondo well resisted efforts to plug it, leaving a slick that threatened beaches from Florida to Louisiana.

The slick disappeared faster than just about anyone predicted — the result of what scientists say was shockingly fast-acting bacteria and the use of chemical dispersants — but not before it canceled vacations, ruined seafood meals and left people out of work coastwide.

Now, a year later, the vacationers are back in force, and the local seafood industry is steadily reviving, but the national markets are still down as former customers found new suppliers outside the Gulf.

“It’s not really, and it never has been, an issue of contamination; it’s been an issue of perception. And that perception is something that, at least here locally, we’re gaining some ground on, but nationally, we’re not,” said Joe Jewell, deputy director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources’ Office of Marine Fisheries.

“We do have safe seafood. It is well-tested. All tests indicate it is good and will continue to be good. We want national markets to know they can enjoy safe Gulf seafood,” he said.

Officials are still surveying commercial fishing operations to tally the total monetary losses to an industry that was worth $660 million a year before the spill, but the known numbers are stark. Mississippi’s crab catch, for example, was down 35 percent in 2010, the shrimp haul was off 60 percent and oysters were down by a whopping 85 percent.

Avery Bates, vice president of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama, said his state had 39 oyster-processing shops before the spill. At the height of the spill, they were down to four, and are now only at seven.

Oysters have been hit hard again this year because the Mississippi floods poured fresh water into the Gulf, changing the water’s salinity and ruining important oyster areas.

Outside of that, state officials say, Gulf seafood continues to be the best-tested product in the world and that no case of contamination in the food supply has been reported since the spill.

The spill marked a rough time for Mr. Obama as the oil well initially resisted all efforts at plugging. Polls at the time showed voters increasingly disenchanted with his handling of the matter — so much so that they rated it worse than that of President George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina.

Seeking to counter that, the president demanded that BP PLC set up a compensation fund to pay those whose livelihoods had been hurt. Mr. Obama also made repeated visits to meet with cleanup officials and local business owners.

At nearly every stop, he managed to be photographed eating seafood.

In early June, he ate crawfish and boiled shrimp at Camardelle’s Seafood in Grand Isle, La., while meeting with small-business owners. Later in June, he slurped lemon-lime ices with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour at Cyndi’s Sno De-Lites in Gulfport, and stopped for crawfish tails and crab claws at Tacky Jack’s in Orange Beach, Ala. On a final trip in late August to New Orleans, he ate a shrimp po’ boy and turkey-alligator gumbo.

The high point was in mid-August, when he took his family on a mini-vacation to Panama City Beach, Fla., eating fish tacos at Lime’s Bayside Bar, taking his daughters for mint chocolate chip ice cream at Bruster’s and swimming in the Gulf.

Although it’s impossible to pinpoint specific economic effects of Mr. Obama’s visits, there is some anecdotal evidence of his success in helping out.

The Panama Beach City Convention and Visitors’ Bureau hired a firm that calculated the Obama family’s visit was worth 8.8 billion media impressions around the world.

“You just can’t beat the strength of the first family,” said Dan Rowe, president of the bureau.

He said lodging revenue, which had been down 15 percent in both July and August last year compared with 2009, was back to flat in September, and for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, it is running well ahead of 2009 and 2010 levels. In June alone, lodging revenue was up 21.2 percent over 2010 and 17.4 percent over 2009.

What worked well for Panama City Beach was that it was spared the worst of the spill — tar balls did reach the beach, but were quickly picked up by the BP crews. A social media campaign helped counter misperceptions.

“Somebody would make a comment to say, ‘Oh, yeah, Panama City Beach, there’s oil everywhere,’ and our visitors would come back in strength and say, ‘No, I was here,’ and provide photos,” Mr. Rowe said.

Despite that, Mr. Rowe said, the effects of the spill will linger in the national perception for a bit. He said focus-group research indicated that people thought the spill’s impacts were greater than they were.

Part of the public relations damage was self-inflicted, at least when it comes to seafood.

During the height of the spill, some seafood processors were steamed when they saw fishermen on television showing what they claimed were oil-contaminated catches pulled out of the Gulf. The processors accused fishermen of bad-mouthing their situation to try to win more concessions from BP’s compensation fund.

For tourism, in its own way, the spill won over new customers, who had never thought about vacationing there until they saw the region last year.

For seafood, the damage will take longer to repair — just as it took in Alaska, where the Exxon Valdez spill fouled the waters in 1989 in what had been the biggest spill until last year’s Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.

“The seafood community as a whole is mostly challenged in the marketplace,” said Mike Voisin, an eighth-generation oysterman and CEO of Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, La. “The images that came as a result of Deepwater Horizon created branding challenges. There have been efforts, and are efforts under way to change that brand. … We’ll have some scars from it, but it will not be a fatal blow or a crippling blow. The resource seems to be doing all right.”

He said the key to changing minds is more exposure — exactly what Mr. Obama helped get started last year.

“It’s going to take time. There’s going to have to be something that clicks in people’s minds that reminds them and encourages them that seafood’s fine from the Gulf,” he said.

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