FROM THE GULF OF MEXICO–Chris Nelson is in charge of oyster procurement for his family’s 114-year old company, Bon Secour Fisheries Inc.  With the BP oil spill offshore, Nelson might well have been out scouring his many contacts for more oysters.  

bon-secour-oysters-featured.jpgInstead, he was in Florida making some new sales calls he set up a month ago before that giant oil rig caught fire and sank.  Nelson knows where oysters might be found if the BP oil spill comes ashore on the Gulf coasts of Mississippi and Alabama.

“The only choice we have is to continue to monitor the situation,” Nelson says when his thoughts turn to the potentially dwindling supply of oysters.  “State and federal governments are pretty much on top the situation.”

Nelson, who doubles as VP for government relations, did not plan on managing the family business through another disaster.  He figured he’d being doing some work this week monitoring the start of new regulations requiring oysters for the raw market to be refrigerated on the boat within one hour of harvest.

Instead, he finds himself pulling both ends of the demand-supply string, waiting like everyone else on the Gulf Coast for when the tims comes to find out where the BP oil slick will do its damage.

Bon Secour Fisheries Inc., according local experts, is among the leading seafood processors and wholesale distributors on the Gulf Coast. It owns a fleet of shrimp trawlers and purchases oysters from state-certified producers.

It grades and packs shrimp and guarantees weights and counts.  It packs fresh, frozen, in-shell, and shucked oysters daily with regular inspection by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state officials.

For Food Safety News, Nelson did a “Joe Friday-like” run down on the Oyster facts.

-The Texas oyster season is already closed for algae bloom from an organism called dinophysis.  

-Louisiana oyster areas west of the Mississippi River remain open with the BP oil slick at the moment going the other way.   The areas east of the Mississippi are closed as a precaution.

-Mississippi season is over.

-Alabama has not harvested significant numbers of oysters in more than a year.   Oysters relocated from polluted areas of Mobile Bay to cleaner waters might be a possibility.

-And, finally, Nelson anticipates some oyster production in Florida.

“I hope to have some product to sell, ” he says.

Shrimp is a big unknown.  “The shrimp supply is going to be tight,” Nelson says.   The upcoming season for brown shell shrimp, which consumers peel before eating, are found in-shore or near-shore and if breached by oil will be lost.

“It looks like it is going to be in jeopardy,” Nelson says. “We are limited to what we can do unless we can get product for our customers.”

His fear, however, is that oil on the Gulf’s beaches will cut into tourism and that in turn will cause a drop in demand for oysters, shrimp, and other fresh seafood from the region’s restaurants.

In 2004, nearby Florida was struck by four Hurricanes and demand for fresh seafood plunged because tourists stayed away.  Then Hurricane Ivan made a direct strike on Bon Secour, which in French means “Safe Harbor.”

Nelson said Ivan forced he and brothers John, the president, and David, vice president for shrimp procurement, to shut down product for two weeks to do clean up and repairs.

The Nelsons have no desire to shut down production again.  “We want to hold on to our employees, Chris says.  “We are located in a small community.  These are our people, people we know.”

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were also major headaches for the company in the way they disrupted the seafood industry on the Gulf, but they managed to keep going.

The brothers do seem to be adept at managing disasters.  One of the pre-emptive actions they’ve already taken is to sue BP for any and all damages that might result from the oil spill.

They are leading a class action lawsuit on behalf of all commercial and residential property owners in Alabama who BP’s oil damages.  Well-known Alabama trial attorney Jere Beasley is handing the litigation.