Consumers Hesitant to Buy Florida Seafood

Consumers are hesitant to eat Florida seafood one year after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS).

The Florida Legislature is seeking support for Florida seafood markets from Congress during the 2011 Legislative Session.

“Pacific is all I’m hearing,” said Jeff Stilwell, owner of Barnacle Bill’s, a local seafood restaurant in Tallahassee. “Pacific shrimp and Atlantic salmon is all people are saying. “No one is saying gulf grouper or fresh from Florida anymore.”

Sen. Alan Hays, (D-Lake County), and Rep. Darryl Ervin Rouson, (D-St.Peterburg), are each sponsoring a memorial that urges  Congress to support marketing of Florida seafood.

The memorials urge Congress to distribute import fees created from marine and fishery product imports to encourage sales of domestic and Florida seafood, according to Senate Memorial 852.

It also urges Congress to provide funds from import fees to a national seafood-marketing fund to promote domestic seafood products.

A legislative memorial is a measure a state legislature uses to express an opinion to the Congress or the president.

Seafood sales in Florida plummeted immediately after the Deepwater Horizon explosion caused by BP on April 20, 2010, according to FDACS.

“We had a steady increase in sales across the board,” said Stilwell. “Supply was good and interested seafood was good. It was good, available and affordable; even for some of the high-end items that people like. “

January reports revealed that fishing in Florida is safe as well as the seafood. Despite these findings reports, consumers are returning slowly and not purchasing as much. Seafood purchases are down 38 percent in Florida restaurants compared to recent years.

Florida’s commercial production of seafood in 2009 was valued at more than $152 million, according to SM 852. The total economic impact from seafood harvesting activities was valued at more than $600 million in 2009.

“The perception of the oil spill is that gulf seafood is tainted,” said Stilwell.

According to FDACS, Florida has an estimated 5,300 commercial fishermen who harvest about 84 million pounds of high-value seafood and fishery products each year with a dock value of approximately $170 million. Another 1,400 Florida-based businesses buy, sell or process seafood.

“All of a sudden big chain restaurants like Red Lobster and Bone Fish were suddenly saying that they were not using Gulf of Mexico seafood.” said Stilwell. “The Gulf of Mexico had a big black eye and people quit eating seafood. Between April and Dec. my sells fell 50 percent. Almost put us out of business.”

The current funding for the domestic promotion of Florida seafood is not enough to successfully develop the blooming markets that develop Florida seafood products, according to SB 852.

“Getting this bill enacted into law will be a heavy lift,” said Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) in a January press release. “We’ll need the support of the full Senate and our partners in the House of Representatives.”

The bills would ultimately create a national seafood-marketing fund using fishery product import fees to finance the activities.

“Right now, everything is beautiful,” said Stilwell. “The food has not been better. We’re hoping it will stay that way. The question everyone should be asking is what the future of the Gulf seafood industry is going to be.”