On the one-year anniversary of the April 2010 BP oil spill, those with ties to the Gulf are taking stock of the damage and long-term fallout from the estimated five million barrels of oil that poured into the water.
The oil spill may have fallen off the radar of the 24-hour news cycle, but it’s still fresh in the minds of the fishermen who catch the shrimp, oysters, crab and finfish that crowd Louisiana’s coastline, seafood processors and the chefs who buy Gulf seafood.
For a few, it’s about business. But for most, like New Orleans chef Frank Brigsten, it’s personal.
“Louisiana seafood isn’t just what we eat,” says Brigsten, owner of the venerable Brigsten’s restaurant and Charlie’s Seafood. “It’s a way of life. It’s our cultural heritage. It’s part of who we are. For the Gulf to be hurt the way it was—I took it very personally.”
“We have something no one else in the world has because of the way the fresh water of the Mississippi pushes into the Gulf. It is a rich resource for seafood, and one of the most diverse resources on the planet. It’s a chef’s dream to be able to cook and live here.”
For Brigsten, the months that oil gushed into the Gulf were punctuated by sleepless nights, daily stress and more than a few tears. Last June, Brigsten took a trip to Grand Isle with his wife Marna to see the damage firsthand.
“I broke down and cried when I saw the tar balls and oil sheen washing up,” Brigsten says.
But if the devastation of Hurricane Katrina taught the chef anything about large-scale disasters, Brigsten says it taught him to be patient and flexible in the face of adversity. So he did what many chefs and restaurateurs in the Gulf region did: He worked harder.
Brigsten weathered fluctuating shrimp prices and daily uncertainty about seafood supplies and the future of the unique fishing culture of South Louisiana. He found alternate seafood suppliers and, when local oyster stocks were at their lowest and the oysters he vetted from other regions weren’t up to his standards, he took oysters off of his menu altogether.
Ten months later, oysters are back on his menu but Brigsten is still worried about the millions of people along the coast who make a living from the Gulf. And, like other chefs, Brigsten is anxiously awaiting news about the upcoming spawning season and harvest of shrimp and crab.
“The spill coincided with the offshore spawning season for shrimp and crab. Everything comes down to how those larvae were affected—or if they were affected at all,” he says. “The worst-case scenario has not happened, but I am waiting for brown shrimp season to open. If the catch is good, we’ve been very lucky.”
In the meantime, Brigsten has one lasting hope as a chef and restauranteur. It’s not a grand ambition. “I just want to get back to the boring, normal days where we just do what we do,” he says. “I don’t like adventure. We don’t need any more excitement down here.”