Gulf Seafood Fighting To Regain Its Place

Whether it's seizing an opportunity or trying to seize back a position that briefly disappeared and got replaced, the Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition wants to put genuine Gulf of Mexico-harvested seafood of every type back on restaurant menus. . .and to have you ask for it by name.

That is, American Gulf of Mexico seafood, not Mexican. All five states on the gulf (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas) are participating with funds from their states, the federal government and, indirectly at least, BP Plc.

The BP oil spill in the gulf back in April 2010 was the turning point. While it appears to me there’s no more hangover from the event, the very fact that gulf seafood was unavailable during the crisis meant the seafood disappeared from menus across the country. When the oil disappeared and testing was started, not a single case of contamination was detected, according to a federal inspector I met down there this week. The seafood was declared safe and returned to the market. Even so, many buyers stayed away for a while, which worked out to some degree since the seafood industry down there needed time to regroup and reactivate.

Three years later – coincidentally, the age of maturity for an oyster -- the coalition is not fighting any lingering doubts about the safety or availability of gulf seafood; they’re fighting their way back onto restaurant menus, a position lost to competitors from other regions during their absence. While they’re at it, while they’re gearing up this marketing effort, they also seek to position their many products as a premium, ask-for product. They’re trying to develop “Gulf Seafood” as something of a brand, one that competes with other geographic products (Maryland crab, Maine lobster, Florida grouper) and certainly commands a premium over commodity seafood products. Although they have plenty of commodity products to sell too. After all, the Gulf Coast produces 70 percent of the nation’s oysters, 69 percent of domestic shrimp and is a leading producer of domestic hard and soft-shell blue crabs.

While theirs is overwhelmingly a marketing fight, the Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition does have a few potent weapons on its side: the centuries-old culture of fishing and seafood cultivation and, of course, local cuisine, much of that from New Orleans. It’s hard not to sample some fresh seafood while you’re in Boston, Maryland or California, but I don’t think you get immersed in it. It’s not part of the culture. And what you order rarely is a uniquely local spin on some spiny or finny critter.

But New Orleans is different. Nowhere do you find creole and Cajun cuisine but N’awlins and Louisiana, and the bulk of that cuisine has seafood in the pot. Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida all are doing their parts, too, and have some delightful local specialties, but the Crescent City is the rock star.

By the way, this comes from a recent visit to New Orleans, and I think I’ve been down there just enough to make some observations about the revival of that city. First let me collect a few facts, and I’ll blog about New Orleans in the middle of next week.