- 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.

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