MONDAY, JUNE 22, 2010

I interviewed Greg Ladnier (pronounced “Lad-neer”) very early this morning. Greg is Leslie’s first cousin, and President of the Sea Pearl Seafood Company here in Bayou La Batre. I asked Greg if he’d been working in the seafood business his whole life. “My whole life,” he said, trying compassionately to stifle a chuckle. “More than my whole life, I feel like.”

Greg is a third generation seafood processor, and his son will be the fourth. Though the company started as an oyster processing company in the 1960s, today they just deal in shrimp. Five million pounds of it each year.

His processing plant takes the raw materials and makes them headless, peeled, deveined,frozen, or some combination thereof. In a normal year Greg buys shrimp from about 40 different boats. Right now there are two.

“One of the main reasons that production is down is because all the boats are working for BP trying to clean the spill up,” he said. “Right now there’s more money working for BP than there could be shrimping.” Boat owners who sign up for skimming, booming and spotting duties are said to make about $1200/day, plus expenses.

But even if the shrimpers weren’t in the oil capturing business, there are far fewer waters to shrimp out of now. As of today, Alabama shrimping is completely closed. All the “inside water,” that is, water between the long strand of barrier islands and the mainland, are closed between the eastern bank of the Mississippi River in Louisiana to at least the Florida line. There are shrimp coming out of western Louisiana and Eastern Florida, for now. And there are a few open patches off the coast of Mississippi.

But as much as anything, Greg, like many others I talked to today, is concerned with the negative public relations that Gulf seafood is getting. “People just don’t know the facts. They don’t know how the feds and the states work. They are really micromanaging. If there is any chance of contamination, they close it down.” So basically, seafood is only coming out of the waters that the feds say is clean. I asked if an oil-contaminated shrimp was easy to eyeball. “You can’t see it, but you can smell it. It’s unmistakable. But so far we’ve had zero problems.”

Zero problems with oil in their plant, but plenty of problems with supply. In May they’re production was down 75%, and in June, it’s looking like it’ll be down 50-60%. While Greg thinks this year’s crop in Alabama is a goner, there’s a lot of hope riding on Texas. Texas’s shrimping season starts the latest, this year likely between July 5 and 15.

“If we lose Texas, if the oil moves into Texas, then we’re going to lose a huge amount of our production.” So far there’s no oil in Texas, and none headed that way. But Greg utters the sentiment that’s on everyone’s lips here: “We’re not sure what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

-Ashley Hall

MORE PHOTOS: Go here to view more of Ashley’s photos from the Alabama coast.

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Ashley Hall is an SFA member and contributer to Gravy, the SFA’s foodletter. She is traveling along the Gulf Coast to capture stories relating to the oil spill as a traveling Gravy correspondent. We’ll be posting relevant entries here, but visit the blog she’s set up for the project, Third Coast Byways, for more.