02/18/2013 11:31 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2013

Lenten Seafood Demand Has Slipped, Louisiana Vendors Say

(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Feb. 18, 2013 edition.)

Seafood sales rise in the more than forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, helping some south Louisiana vendors by as much as fifty percent as tastes turn from Mardi Gras king cakes to oysters, shrimp and crabs. But the region's Lenten consumption isn't what it used to be. Sellers have been hit by multiple blows on the demand side, including Asian competition and lost business since the BP spill. Supply-side whammies have also taken a toll.

On Ash Wednesday, April Michel, saleswoman at Amy's Seafood in the Westwego seafood market, said "Lent in recent years has been slower than it was before the 2010 BP spill and Katrina in 2005." Over twenty vendors run stalls at the Westwego market or Shrimp Lot on the West Bank of New Orleans. Early last Wednesday, salespeople were at their posts serving a few customers. "People haven't trusted seafood since the spill," Michel said. Oyster supplies have remained smaller since then, too. But because of relative tightness, "some vendors are putting a 'tax' on oysters and jacking prices up a little," she said.

Michel said consumers who still eat seafood are watching their spending and many have turned to giant discounters. "Walmart's killing us with their prices and most of what they're selling isn't local," she said. "It's from Indonesia, China and other Asian countries."

Meanwhile, at Captain Johnny Smith Oyster Packing Plant on Earhart Blvd. in New Orleans, owner John Smith last week said oysters aren't as plentiful or as fat as they were before the spill. "It's something people in the business notice but we're not sure why it's happened," he said. "It may be because of the dispersant that was used" to break up BP oil. Smith said local oyster prices rose in 2010 as fishing was restricted during and after the spill. Prices haven't declined much since. Louisiana oysters might sell for 5 percent more this Lent than a year ago, he said.

Michel said the local oyster season won't really get under way until this spring. And she said to provide year-round, Louisiana shrimpers go out into the Gulf as far as they have to. "We're supplied by double rigs that stay out for 28 days and flash freeze their catch on the boat," she said. "That's how we're able to sell local shrimp twelve months a year." Last week, the stall where she works offered Louisiana shrimp at between $2.75 and $5.00 a pound.

Crawfish, which are are mostly farm raised in Louisiana, are plentiful now because of a wet winter, Michel said. As for Gulf fish, "we sell two varieties of red snapper two months of the year each," she said, citing restrictions on them so they won't be overfished and disappear.

Smith pointed to a northern change since the spill. "U.S. East Coast restaurants couldn't depend on us in 2010," he said. "Since then, the East Coast oyster industry has put resources into its beds and replenished them. Restaurants up there can buy local oysters and save the $1,800 or more in freight it costs them to bring a truckload in from Louisiana."

Smith said the wholesale side of Louisiana's seafood business has been hurt by big-box establishments like Restaurant Depot, which opened a couple of years ago on South Broad in New Orleans. He said "they sell oysters, chicken, napkins and anything a restaurant needs. It's one stop for the restaurants, cutting out the wholesaler." Restaurants and nonprofits sign up for free membership cards to shop at Restaurant Depot, headquartered in Chicago.

On the supply side, Smith said the possible construction of new, lower Mississippi River diversions wouldn't be good for oysters. "Sediment from the diversions covers up the beds, and oysters don't fill out if they get too much fresh water," he noted. A sediment diversion to rebuild the shrinking coast is being considered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state at Myrtle Grove in Plaquemines Parish.

On a more positive note, however, Smith said "the state's been helping oyster growers build up their beds since the spill. We could have a good harvest two years from now. We just have to wait."

At the Westwego seafood market, James Camardelle of Cajun Critters Swamp Tours said the number of commercial fishermen in Louisiana has declined to about a tenth of what it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Katrina and the spill are culprits. But he said "a lot of it's cheap imports coming in from China, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam. And Washington's allowing it."

What's more, only a fraction of imported seafood from Asia, sometimes raised in unsanitary conditions, is inspected when it enters the United States, vendors said.

Last week, a chalkboard on the outside of Market We Go, a grocery store selling boiled seafood and poboy sandwiches at the Westwego Shrimp Lot, said "Better Than Walmart" in large print. Across the way, Michel stood in front of a blue "Louisiana Seafood" sign at her employer's stall. But she said, "you can see that not all the vendors here have this sign because some of them are selling imports."

Last year, the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries, other state agencies, the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board and LSU AgCenter launched a state-certified seafood program to build a brand, similar to Idaho Potatoes. Louisiana is the top supplier of shrimp, oysters, crabs and crawfish in the United States.

As for Walmart, when asked about seafood sourcing last week, Walmart spokeswoman Ashley Hardie said the company couldn't comment since it doesn't break out sales data. end