As the Deepwater Horizon sunk and oil began gushing to the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, one of Ewell Smith's first phone calls was to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
The executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board had developed a close relationship with his counterparts at ASMI in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and his message was simple:
"We've got another problem."
Ray Riutta, executive director at ASMI, said there has been "running dialogue" between ASMI and Gulf seafood marketing groups since the April 20 explosion that led to the eventual sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig operated by BP.
"It's been very much appreciated," Smith said. "It's been a great relationship between Louisiana and Alaska. There's so much similarity between us with the seafood and oil industries. That's why we're also worried about this moratorium (on deep water oil drilling).
"We've been very concerned about that being put in place. So many fishermen have family in that business, or vice versa or they do both -- work on a rig and fish. Our fishing communities are hurting and if they don't lift it soon, that could be what breaks the camel's back for some of these fisheries."
Alaska and the Gulf states now share an unfortunate common history of oil spills fouling their beaches -- and their brands. Riutta said it took Alaska seafood more than five years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill to recover from the images of oil slicks and wildlife drowning in black, sticky crude at Prince William Sound.
Riutta said Alaska fishermen doing in-store promotions 10 years after Valdez still heard customers' one-liners such as, "Does that come with oil?"
Smith worries the damage done from a 24/7 news cycle that featured an underwater BP camera showing millions of gallons of oil flowing into the Gulf for more than three months will be even tougher to undo.
"The images have been burnt into people's heads across the nation," Smith said. "People don't need to read the story, they just see the images and form an opinion. Those can breed misperceptions."
Getting a handle on perceptions was one of the first pieces of advice Riutta gave Smith and others around the Gulf.
"Go do a market analysis, find out what the perception is and then go after it," Riutta said.
The key to battling the perception of polluted Gulf seafood will be safety, which ASMI made its top priority after Valdez and emphasized in repeated updates to more than 20,000 retail and food service representatives.
Smith, who recently served a 30-foot oyster and shrimp po'boy sandwich for situation commander Adm. Thad Allen, energy "czar" Carol Browner and other presidential staff, said Gulf seafood is "probably the safest in the United States."
The blown-out well has now been capped for weeks, and while disagreement continues between biologists over the amount of oil remaining in the Gulf, white shrimp season has opened.
Smith said he's been working with all the relevant state and federal agencies to ensure the Gulf seafood harvest is safe.
"It's being tested and tested and will be tested for a long time to come," he said. "We need those agencies to come together collectively to help us message this to the U.S. in a clean concise message on a weekly basis the consumer can understand. From that, we can build on the public relations and marketing."
Some of that marketing involves bringing celebrity chefs to New Orleans to cook with Gulf seafood and return to their home markets proclaiming it safe for consumption. The Gulf seafood industry also has access to the most famous spokesperson possible -- President Barack Obama, who ate Gulf seafood at his recent birthday party and with the visiting Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
"You can't get more prominent than that," Riutta said.
Alaska had an assist not immediately available to the Louisiana Seafood board -- money.
ASMI spent around $10 million per year following the Valdez spill, most all of it state money, rebuilding the Alaska seafood brand.
So far, BP hasn't been forthcoming with much marketing aid for Gulf seafood groups even as it spends $50 million attempting to burnish its own image with the ubiquitous "making things right" ad campaign.
Smith said he needs at least $30 million to $40 million over the next few years just for marketing, and he expects BP to fund it. That's a message Smith has taken directly to the White House and in meetings with Ken Feinberg, who is administering claim payments from BP's $20 billion relief fund.
"We need to be able to do the same thing and need the money to do it," Smith said. "The faster we do that, the faster we can get communities back on their feet."
Smith is concerned about soft demand and low prices for shrimp in September, but he also reported positive meetings with Walmart about marketing Louisiana seafood.
"They're working to put together some promotions," Smith said. "They've coming here to embrace this and figure out how they can help. That's important."
Riutta thinks the Gulf seafood industry is looking at a multi-year rebuilding for its brand, but he also speculated that the 24/7 news cycle that worked against it could be turned to an advantage.
"They do have an advantage of being closer to the news outlets," he said. "It's not as geographically isolated. They have the advantage of a wider audience."
Andrew Jensen can be reached at andrew.jensen.@alaskajournal.com.
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