Multiple disasters in six years have left America’s Gulf Coast seafood industry fighting for its life. In Louisiana, where one in seventy jobs is tied to seafood harvesting, survival is the only option. In the spring of 2011, the Mississippi River reached historic crest levels, causing fresh water to flood and devastate the Louisiana estuaries and threatening the lives of productive oyster beds. This came close on the heels of the infamous BP oil spill of 2010. The damage of both events was accentuated by the lingering effects of Hurricane Katrina, which savaged the Gulf Coast in 2005. Taken together, these disasters were a perfect storm of Gulf Coast seafood destruction.
There are many misconceptions regarding seafood safety. Despite fishing waters only reopening once oil had been cleared and the water tested, many Americans still believe that Gulf fishermen were allowed to fish when oil was in the water. Most consumers do not know that Gulf seafood is rigorously tested for safety, while only two percent of imported seafood is ever inspected. This is the sort of public relations hurdle the Gulf Coast seafood industry is now facing. The challenges, though, are not insurmountable, and it appears that the tide is turning for the better on the Gulf shores.
Americans eat more than a billion pounds of shrimp a year, or about four pounds per person, which is nearly double what they consumed 20 years ago. Shrimp is now America’s favorite seafood, surpassing the long reigning king of the can, tuna.
Until the mid-1980s all the shrimp consumed in the United States was wild and sourced from thriving family-run shrimping businesses along the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic shores. But as inexpensive farmed seafood began coming to the market, many shrimpers were unable to make a living wage and left the industry. Today, only 15 to 20 percent of the shrimp Americans consume is wild and from our coastal waters.
Capitalizing on the growing concern over farmed shellfish, American shrimpers, aided by restaurants and chefs and a marketing campaign funded by industry contributions, foundation grants, and federal government assistance, are waging a timely comeback. The campaign is designed to educate consumers about the purity and superior taste of wild shrimp, which is sweeter and has a better texture than the farmed variety—qualities for which chefs are happy to pay premium prices. “We can’t supply all the demand [for wild shrimp] in this country,” says Eddie Gordon, executive director of Wild American Shrimp, Inc. The group certifies that shrimpers and their shrimp catch meet stringent environmental and quality standards to be able to display the “Certified Wild American Shrimp” sticker on packages and in restaurants.
“There are premium customers out there,” Gordon states, noting that more people want to know from where their shrimp is sourced. “For foodies, it’s great. There’s a huge difference in flavor.” But even with customers willing to pay more, there is still not enough wild shrimp to satisfy the demand, particularly in the south, where eating shrimp is a way of life.
In New Orleans, shrimp is a mainstay of the local Louisiana economy as well as the “Haute Creole” cooking of Executive Chef Tory McPhail at Commander’s Palace. For fresh supplies of the crustacean, McPhail reports, “We have a guy who delivers wild shrimp from the back of his pickup truck every other day. He goes to the docks and knows the fishermen. . . . We can rely on his quality. It’s a good arrangement for the shrimpers, too. They get more money in their pocket than if they were to sell to a big commercial wholesaler.” Different kinds of shrimp are harvested year-round from the Gulf waters, so McPhail always has some local product with which to work.
Unlike lobster and crab, which take more time to mature and reproduce, shrimp grow quickly, living just over a year before spawning and dying. Young shrimp live in coastal estuaries for a couple of months before heading out to sea, where the water is cooler. Once the shrimp are caught, they are iced or frozen. Gordon explains that the day boats still do it the old-fashioned way: “They shovel layers of ice on top of the catch. However, in the deep Gulf, where boats from Louisiana or Texas are out for longer periods, they put the just-caught shrimp in a brine bath, then into a box so they don’t get damaged, and freeze them immediately. They are not completely thawed when they are graded and packed.” He adds, “Many shrimpers have converted from ice to brine freezing tanks and are now able to supply an excellent fresh-frozen wild shrimp, so it’s easier to keep wild shrimp for year-round use.”
McPhail, who favors white shrimp for its cleaner taste, is a fan of serving shrimp simply, with the heads on. “There’s something really rustic and natural and true about this presentation, like the fish just came off the dock.” He laments the way many cooks diminish the flavor of shrimp. “They take off the heads, and then the shells, and then rinse them off. And after all that, they boil them in water. Well, shoot, half the flavor of the shrimp has just been eliminated.” The better way, McPhail insists, is to leave the shrimp intact and “just throw them on the grill like you would a good piece of meat.”
Chef Jose Martinez of Maison Blanche Restaurant in Longboat Key, Florida, is another huge fan of wild raised seafood. He notes that the Gulf of Mexico offers 600,000 square miles of healthy marine ecosystem, where wild shrimp have a diverse and naturally organic diet. This, he insists, produces a healthier, more flavorful, and superior shrimp to farm raised, which are often grown in poor environmental conditions and fed grains containing antibiotics.
“Wild American shrimp,” says Martinez, “is an important resource to me because 80 to 90 percent of our shrimp is imported from Asia, Central America, and South America, where seafood farming methods have created an environmental and ecological horror.”
In contrast, wild shrimp spawns in an open sea environment, is sustainable, and is a naturally renewable resource. “Wild shrimp is mostly harvested in waters that are still pristine and free from pollution,” he adds, “and the areas where they grow are traceable and regulated.”
Martinez credits the State of Florida for the progress it has made in eliminating harmful shrimp raising and harvesting techniques through stricter regulation and the development of new technology, such as turtle excluder and by-catch reduction devices. He also applauds the efforts of organizations such as Wild American Shrimp and the Monterrey Bay Aquarium for monitoring domestic seafood fisheries and defining certification processes that make wild seafood traceable to their origins.
Although there are more than 50 different species of oysters, only five—the Atlantic, Gulf, Pacific, Olympia, and Belon—are cultivated in North America. Once they reach maturity, oysters are harvested either by hand (with large, tonglike tools) or by dragging with giant rakes. Some farms grow the oysters on wire racks, which are then pulled up to the surface for harvesting. The oysters are usually kept on the fishing boat’s deck in plastic totes or burlap sacks before being transported to processing plants where they are rinsed and sorted according to shell size. Most purveyors separate their oysters into standard grade (two to three inches) and select grade (three to four inches). In Louisiana, the extra prime–grade category denotes oysters that are more than four inches long.
Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, says that they are battling an image problem nationally due to the oil spill. This is despite the fact that Louisiana seafood is “the most tested in the nation and has been given a clean bill of health for months.” Locally, claims Smith, sales of Louisiana seafood are almost back to where they were pre-oil spill, because “people understand the chain of food supply and how well nature heals itself.”
Newly crowned ‘King of Louisiana Seafood,’ Chef Cory Bahr of Restaurant Sage in Monroe, Louisiana, went to extraordinary lengths to support the local fishing industry. “I sourced seafood from unaffected areas and, when I was able to get Gulf seafood, I menued it as ‘BP free.’ I encouraged everyone to support Louisiana and Gulf Coast fisherman. I drove over 400 miles to the docks on several occasions to pick up fish when there was none available locally. Since the spill, our seafood is the most tested and traceable in the country, which has been crucial to putting to rest any fears consumers may have had. ”
The most popular method of serving oysters is the age-old way: raw and on the half shell. When served raw, the oysters should be shucked and then immediately transferred to a bowl or tray of ice for serving, as they die quickly once the shell is opened. Franz Auer, owner of The Old Oyster Factory on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, prefers setting the half-shell oysters on trays of crushed ice and seaweed, with some greens and lemon wedges to finish. When it comes to raw oysters, creativity is the key. “There is still a little mystery about oysters,” Auer shares. “Some people aren’t used to the translucent appearance of the uncooked oyster. You don’t want to destroy the salinity of them by cooking too much.”
The demand for Gulf Coast seafood has traditionally been high. Unlike seafood fisheries in many of the mid-Atlantic states, where the most fecund areas were harvested to near extinction, the Gulf Coast shrimp and oyster industries have long been under strict management guidelines and continue to produce abundant yields. Despite the recent natural and manmade disasters, the growing demand for locally produced food, coupled with the strong support of Gulf states’ chefs and consumers, has enabled the Gulf Coast seafood industry to stay afloat. Given the wild raised and caught seafood movement now surging across the nation, its renewed success lies just over the horizon.
Chef Cory Bahr, Restaurant Sage, Monroe, LA
Yield: 2–3 dozen
Gulf oysters, cleaned, shucked, and on the half-shell 24–36
Garlic, minced 1 Tbsp
Parsley, chopped 1 Tbsp
Scallions, sliced 1 Tbsp
Sea salt 1 tsp
Black pepper, crushed 1 tsp
Gulf shrimp, roughly chopped 1 lb
Parmesan cheese, shredded 1 cup
Lemons, juiced 2
Ground red pepper 1/8 tsp
Paprika 1/8 tsp
Parmesan cheese, shredded 1/2 cup
Bacon, crisped and chopped 6 slices
French bread, dried and cubed 2 cups
Parsley, chopped 2 Tbsp
1. Place shrimp compound ingredients in a bowl, mix until loosely combined, and set aside.
2. Place the breadcrumbs ingredients in a food processor and process until a medium-fine consistency is achieved.
3. Spoon the shrimp compound butter onto the oysters and place on the hottest part of your grill (they will flare and you want that smoky flavor!). When the oysters begin to bubble, top with the breadcrumbs and cook for 1–2 minutes more.
4. Place cooked oysters on a platter, squeeze some lemon, and open a beer!
Note: This can be done in a 400˚F oven on a sheet pan with rock salt.