Shrimp working their way through the massive massive machine that will strip them of their shells.
The Louisiana seafood industry has been through a lot recently. There was Katrina, and then the BP oil spill. Most recently, the opening of spillways and freshwater diversions to relieve flooding further up the Mississippi has thrown off the coastal ecosystem. Yes, it's been a tough few years. But as I saw firsthand on my visit to New Orleans, Louisiana fishermen, the facilities that process their catch, and Gulf seafood itself are anything if not resilient. Here's a peek into the world of catching, cleaning, and eating Gulf seafood.
Our first stop was at Pontchartrain Blue Crabs in Slidell, a small processing facility that none-the-less houses all the necessary people and equipment to sort, boil, pick, and package lump crab meat. From boat to truck, that crab meat is out the door in a mere twenty-four hours.
This area was hard-hit by Katrina and the original facility was completely washed away. Gary Bauer, the owner of Pontchartrain Blue Crabs, rebuilt right on top of the concrete slabs left behind after the waters receded.
Motivatit Seafood was up next, an oyster processing facility owned by Mike Voisin in Houma, Louisiana. Voisin is a seventh generation oysterman, and his sons are ready to become the eighth. Voisin showed us how artificial reefs are created from used oyster shells, which are then seeded with live oysters.
These oysters take 3 to 4 years to mature, which means this operation will be feeling the cumulative affect of the recent disasters for some time to come. As it is, this facility processes around 750 million oysters every year, using their patented high-pressure pasteurization system to ensure that their oysters are extra-safe and ready for slurping straight from the shell.
Our final tour was of Gulf Island Shrimp and Seafood processing facility in Dulac. Here, shrimp are unloaded right off the boat, sorted by size, and then individually quick frozen before being packaged for shipping. Most impressive were the machines that automatically strip the shells off the shrimp!
One thing became very clear to me in the course of these tours: these people love what they do. From Mike Voisin and his sons to the fireman who runs a crab boat in his spare time to even the migrant workers who return to the same facility year after year, every single person clearly showed pride in their seafood and satisfaction in bringing it to the table.
It's been a hard number of years, but there are some blessings. Money received from BP and various government agencies is being used to test Louisiana seafood more rigorously than ever before. This funding is also going toward putting into place more safety measures and carrying out extensive research on the Gulf ecosystem, neither of which were possible to nearly this extent in years past.
The FDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are using a two-tiered process for testing the seafood: sensory tests for odors (which can be detected by the human nose in surprisingly small amounts) and chemical testing for hydrocarbons. They have pronounced Gulf seafood clean and safe for consumption on all accounts.
But even more than studies and government tests, I trust the folks actually fishing and processing the seafood. I think that it's impossible for anyone to love what they do as much as these people and deliver an oyster or a crab or a pound of shrimp that is anything less than the very best. This alone makes me support Louisiana seafood.
Plus, it's just so darn tasty.
Want to help the Louisiana seafood industry? It's easy: just eat Louisiana seafood.
• More Information on Gulf Seafood: Louisiana Seafood Handbook
Related: What's the Difference? Brown, White, and Freshwater Shrimp
(Information for this post was gathered during a press trip to New Orleans sponsored by the Louisiana Seafood Board. All views and opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author.)
(Images: Emma Christensen)