BON SECOUR, AL — Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries Inc., knew a year ago when the BP oil spill had just begun that the hardest damages to settle would involve the market and the environment.
That’s why this 4th-generation, family-owned seafood business was among the first to sue BP after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform killed 11 men and destroyed the facility, spilling a gusher of oil into America’s Gulf.
Like others, Nelson’s 115-year-old family business has used the dual tracks available to it to obtain relief from damages caused by last year’s 4.9 million-barrel BP oil spill that lasted for three full months, causing much of the northern Gulf of Mexico to be closed to all shell and fin fishing.
Bon Secour Fisheries continues to pursue its independent court action against BP, and like others it has also used the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) set up under Kenneth R. Feinberg.
Nelson views Feinberg as “honest and competent,” but under continual political pressure from the Gulf region and the Obama Administration, which set up the GCCF with BP’s money.
Feinberg previously was the independent administrator for the 9-11 and Virginia Tech victims’ funds, but those do not match the breadth and depth of the claims against BP for the oil spill.
Through the anniversary date of the spill, Feinberg had received approximately 857,000 claims from more than half a million individuals and businesses. Claims that are paid to businesses like Bon Secour Fisheries are usually for some very definable loss that if paid will be taken into account in any final court settlements.
That leaves Nelson, who holds a master’s degree in marine environmental sciences and who worked during a break from the family business as a project coordinator for the National Fisheries Institute in Washington, DC, focused on where the Gulf seafood industry finds itself now.
Nelson says, “every credible source” says “our seafood is safe.” That fact, however, does not remove the still intangible damage that has been done to Gulf seafood in the marketplace. Nelson estimates that 15-20 percent of the people in the Gulf region have stopped eating local seafood.
He fears the percentage could be higher farther away from the Gulf. Nelson says there are consumer surveys underway to come up with reliable estimates.
Even before working on regaining consumer confidence, the Gulf seafood industry has to work to get back what it has lost at the retail and restaurant levels, Nelson says. Last year when oysters were topping $100 a gallon, up from the normal $40 to $50 range, some stopped ordering entirely.
In the seafood business, the trick is to have a good production year at the same time you have a good price year. Nelson says 2010 was shaping up to be just such a year when BP did its damage.
The other intangible is the Gulf environment itself. Studies predicting that there will be some “dead zones” in the Gulf are not the kind of predictions the seafood industry wants to hear.
Nelson thinks it is too early in the recovery process to truly assess the Gulf environment and what it will be able to produce. He notes that when he was in high school, the Nelson family ran 80 of its own shrimp boats from its snug harbor on the Bon Secour River, off Mobile Bay.
Today they run five shrimp boats, the reduction due largely to environmental restrictions.
In the meantime, Nelson is working to see if there isn’t a “boll weevil” opportunity in all of this. Alabama has a “boll weevil” monument to the pest that forced the state into more diverse crops, like peanuts, and away from its dependence on King Cotton.
Only 10-15 percent of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. today are from the Gulf. The rest are foreign imports — 98 percent of which are never inspected.
Nelson thinks it may be possible to create a market identity for U.S.-grown shrimp, just as there is for Alaskan salmon or Angus Beef.
Bon Secour Fisheries Inc., say 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.