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State Fights Public Perception of Oil Spill

By Gina Jordan

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-905008.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Public perception about the spill in the Gulf may do more damage to Florida businesses than the oil. Hoping to attract visitors, Governor Charlie Crist suspended fees for saltwater fishing licenses for the Memorial Day Weekend, and an advertising campaign promises oil-free beaches. Gina Jordan has more on an effort by the state to set the record straight when it comes to seafood.

Business is good at the Southern Seafood Market in Tallahassee. The company sells its goods to the public and to restaurants in the region. But General Manager Matt McCreless says the misperception people have of the industry right now is being felt.

"They should have no fear of buying fresh Florida seafood. The government is overprotective probably of the areas that may contain contaminated water, so they are overprotected, and they are making sure that none of that seafood can get into the system."

The oil started gushing as Northwest Florida was entering its prime time for tourism, potentially impacting restaurants, charter captains, fishermen, and souvenir businesses. Even though there is no oil in sight, there is still plenty of uncertainty. McCreless is hoping a $25-million ad campaign funded by BP will turn things around.

"We want the consumer to know they can feel safe eating the seafood that they get in restaurants or through our market or the other markets. Even the wild Gulf products are safe because the parts that we're fishing right now and the places that we're getting our fish are not contaminated by any oil, and the government is being very careful about the areas they block off."

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is waging its own information campaign, but Commissioner Charles Bronson is going up against a national media that he says keeps touting the large amount of oil in the Gulf without mentioning that Florida's beaches and waters are unaffected.

"Our seafood industry is losing money because some of the buyers from the Northeast and all are not making orders out of the Gulf and it's hurting their business. So, you know, we'd just like to get the message out there's nothing wrong with our seafood."

It's not good business practice to sell tainted fish, and Bronson says the industry isn't going to do something that could hurt their bottom line. His website even offers dozens of seafood recipes.

"As a regulator, we're not going to do anything that would jeopardize the consumers of the state or the country. So we think it's been overplayed to the point now from the food safety standpoint that it has actually affected business and is starting to affect jobs here in the state of Florida."

The state opened oyster season early as a precaution, and even though the oil is actually moving away from Florida, certain items directly affected by the spill have gone up in price, like oysters, shrimp and crab meat. McCreless says his cost for oysters has increased a dollar fifty a pound in the last three weeks. He says restaurants will ask for fewer products if they perceive there will be less business.

"That happened right off the bat. Florida was hurt tremendously the first couple weeks of the oil spill because people thought that the beaches were going to be contaminated. You know, news releases told us that the oil would be on the beaches in several days, and that really hurt Mother's Day weekend. There's no way to really calculate the damage (to businesses) that occurred during Mother's Day weekend out on the beaches."

McCreless says it's too soon to know whether there will be shortages or if some items will become unavailable altogether. No one knows the long term affect on the seafood industry. More than anything else, Commissioner Bronson is trying to fight the negative and false impressions that he says have affected just about every business in the Northwest Florida area.

"When you heard some of the stories from a week or two ago, it sounded like the whole Gulf was totally ruined, and people were cancelling their trips to the Northwest Florida beaches. Hotels, restaurants were paying the price. The seafood industry, they didn't want to spend hundreds of dollars or thousands of dollars going out on their boats to collect and catch fish if they couldn't move them when they got back."

The agriculture department is working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the federal Food and Drug Administration on food safety issues. Bronson says tests are conducted daily, and as long as no contamination is found, they will keep pushing Florida's seafood and beaches.

"I think it's been a challenge for just about everybody involved. I think BP has their hands full. I hope that this new plug that they're putting in will work, and then we can start trying to figure out exactly what happened, how it happened and why it happened, and hopefully be prepared in case anything like this ever happens again."

For now, none of Florida's waters, which stretch about twelve miles out, have been closed.