03/10/2014 01:27 pm ET Updated May 10, 2014

Funds for Tracing Gulf Seafood Slated to Run Out at Year's End

This article is published in The Louisiana Weekly in the March 10, 2014 edition.

Louisiana seafood vendors were hurt by the 2010 BP spill, fishing closures and consumers' fears that Gulf shrimp, oysters and fish were tainted. The catch isn't fully back to pre-spill levels but vendors want to prove they have quality, local seafood to sell. An almost three-year-old program called Gulf Seafood Trace or GST captures and adds to data from state trip tickets--which were launched in Louisiana in year 2000 to document hauls unloaded by boats. Vendors participating in GST can show customers that their seafood is from Gulf states, not other U.S. coastal areas or Asia.

The trace program was authorized by Congress and is supported by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration award to the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission's oil disaster recovery program. That money dries up on Dec. 31, however.

"We've received no firm commitments from NOAA or any other sources about additional funding for the GST program," Alexander Miller, staff economist and traceability coordinator at the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, said last week. "The funding from NOAA Fisheries is about $2 million, supporting the program from 2011 to the end of 2014." Based in Ocean Springs, Miss., the GSMFC develops and conserves fishery resources.

Participation in Gulf Seafood Trace is voluntary across five states. The program uses Trace Register's electronic platform to augment trip-ticket data with additional stats on products and vessels. Using the platform, businesses can share supply-chain facts that are almost real time with their customers. Trace Register, a company founded in Seattle in 2005, provides web-based technology used by over 700 seafood buyers, suppliers and retailers in 24 countries.

"The seafood business can tailor GST information to specific audiences with marketing modules--basically mini websites that allow users to view the product's journey from Gulf to plate," GST outreach coordinator Malinda Kelley of New Orleans consultants GCR Inc. said last week. "These sites typically include a map--showing stops along the supply chain--vessel and captain bios, product information, business history and recipes, etc. The sites are usually accessed through a quick reference or QR code."

GST has traced 42 million pounds of Gulf seafood to date, drawing on the $2 million in federal funding. "Sixty-six Gulf companies have signed up," Kelley said. "And because each company submits trace information that can span their entire supply chain, the list of program participants is actually 1,052 Gulf-wide, including 987 fishing vessels, 38 processors, 19 dockside facilities and eight distributors."

Harlon's LA Fish in Kenner, La. is a member of Gulf Seafood Trace. "It takes time to educate seafood companies and fishermen about the value of the program," company owner Harlon Pearce said last week. "We may be selling everything we've got but we could be doing a better job of it. You earn more if your product is viewed as high quality." In addition to boosting the regional brand, he said the program can help the industry as it collaborates on sustainability--preserving the vitality of Gulf species. Pearce is chairman of the Gulf Seafood Institute, formed last summer in Louisiana.

Keilen Williams, owner of New Orleans ShrimpMan LLC, a GST member based in Pointe a la Hache, La., said his is the only local and national African American seafood brand. He feels the program hasn't helped his company. "My brand is not in Walmart, Costco or other major chains because the Gulf trace program doesn't provide the certification they want," he said.

Walmart U.S., for example, requires its seafood suppliers to be third-party certified, using standards set by the Marine Stewardship Council in the United Kingdom, or the St. Louis-based Global Aquaculture Alliance's best practices or equivalent guidelines. Under the MSC standard, a fishery must prove the following: its activities are at levels that are sustainable for fish populations; operations are managed to help maintain ecosystem diversity; it meets local, national and international laws and can respond to change.

The GST, meanwhile, has an auditing component. When the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, Trace Register and MRAG Americas, Inc. launched the regional trace program three years ago, much of the information was already available but needed to be examined and repackaged. MRAG Americas, a Florida-based consultant in aquatics research management, supports the GST by analyzing data provided by companies participating in the GST for accuracy. MRAG visits sites, auditing them to check facts.

Last fall, GST and the Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition partnered with the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association in a 13-week promotion called "Every Shrimp Has a Tale" at 46 restaurants. MHRA got a $325,000 grant from BP for that campaign to raise awareness about premium local shrimp, Malinda Kelley said. Sales swelled in Mississippi during the promotion.

"BP has helped support the seafood industry by paying, or committing to pay, $82 million to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi for state-led seafood testing and marketing programs," BP spokesman Jason Ryan in Houston said last week. "This includes $48.5 million that BP is providing so states can develop programs to promote Gulf seafood along the coast and around the country."

Ryan also said that according to government data, Gulf fish populations are healthy and seafood is safe to eat.

The jury's still out on the post-spill health of Gulf seafood, however. Fishermen and dealers remain concerned about the reproductive potential of local species. In southeast Louisiana's Barataria Bay and other areas directly impacted by the spill, fishermen have seen shrimp numbers only partly recover since 2010.

The Gulf & South Atlantic Fisheries Foundation, a regional nonprofit in Florida, oversees a grant from the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission for seafood promotions under the commission's NOAA Award. The GSAFF manages the Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition, formed in 2011, with that grant. Last week, GSAFF seafood marketing director Joanne McNeely said the Gulf Seafood Trace program is a promising aspect of its retail and restaurant partnerships. "Working with retailers, we prepare recipes and provide samples to their store customers, who enjoy our natural, wild-caught seafood and learn that it's easy to prepare," she said.

Because of these initiatives, "we've seen product sales increase by as much as 63 percent at some retailers, mainly in the U.S. Northeast or West, where customers have less access to flavorful Gulf seafood," McNeely said. "We've also seen growth in sales from local promotions with stores such as Rouses markets, but these increases weren't as significant since Gulf residents are the biggest supporters of local seafood." In addition to Rouses, based in Thibodaux, La., the Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition has partnered with Belle Foods in Alabama, H-E-B in Texas, Hannaford in Maine and Hy-Vee in Iowa.

The local industry is keeping an eye on government tallies. In 2012, 5,566 licensed Louisiana commercial fishermen landed 100.3 million pounds of shrimp of all species, with a dockside value of $145 million, according to the state's Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries. Before the 2010 spill, 114 million pounds were harvested in Louisiana in 2009, 89.7 million pounds in 2008 and 109.5 million pounds in 2007. Sixty to 65 percent of the state's white shrimp are from coastal or bay waters, while brown shrimp are mostly collected in deeper, outside regions.

The brown shrimp harvest from July 2013 through June 2014 in the western Gulf of Mexico--for state and federal waters off Louisiana and federal waters off Texas--was forecast at 55 million pounds, below a 52-year average of 56.6 million pounds, by NOAA last summer. Shrimp caught in state and federal waters off Louisiana from west of the Mississippi River to the Texas-Louisiana border in the 2013-14 season was projected at 29 million pounds, while the Texas catch was seen at 26 million. For its predictions, NOAA monitors juvenile brown shrimp, makes growth estimates and weighs environmental factors.

Sixty-eight percent of shrimp harvested in the United States is from the Gulf, mainly from Louisiana and Texas.

After the spill, BP America asked the Gulf's commercial fishermen to provide landings data from 2007 to 2010 to gauge their eligibility for assistance. Louisiana's Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries reviews industry trip tickets for accuracy to help fishermen and dealers receive compensation after oil spills, hurricanes and other disasters. end