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Is BP on the hook for fish's sullied reputation?

By Kari Huus, msnbc.com senior reporter

After a major oil spill, there are birds to be washed, tarballs to be retrieved and tarnished reputations to be repaired. For seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, promoters say that will likely be a long and expensive road — a cost they expect BP to bear.

“We’re going to need marketing dollars to get out of this hole,” said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion Board, a state entity that markets everything from oysters to tuna caught off state shores. “Our brand has been damaged badly. It may take up to five years to restore our brand. That’s a multimillion dollar, multiyear program to rebuild brand and consumer confidence.”

Photo by Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images

A seafood restaurant's sign lights up in New Orleans on July 23, 2010.

BP gave the marketing group $2 million shortly after the Deepwater Horizon accident on April 20, but Ewell said he considered that “a sort of deposit.” The money has been used for crisis communication, seeking to assure the public that seafood from Gulf fishing areas that remained open was just fine.

But restoring the Louisiana seafood brand long term will cost $20 million to $40 million, he estimates – and maybe more. In addition to marketing, the state government wants BP to pay for 20 years of seafood monitoring and other costs associated with winning back consumer confidence. In an April 29 letter, state officials requested a total of $457 million from BP to set the seafood industry right.

“Public confidence in our industry is eroding,” said the letter, addressed to BP CEO Tony Hayward. This is evidenced by a recent USA Today poll, where 13 percent of those polled said they would not eat gulf seafood. This poll was taken before the images of coastal impact were seen on television, and we can only assume the damage is even worse today.“

“We still haven’t had any action on it,” communications director for Lousiana's disaster recovery unit Christina Stephens said of the request.

BP press officer Mark Proegler confirmed the company had received the request and said the company “is in dialogue with state officials on this matter.” He went on to note that ongoing testing has shown Louisiana seafood to be safe. “Also, we're also pleased to see the reopening of fishing areas,” Proegler added in his email response, referring to the state’s decision to reopen some of Louisiana’s commercial fishing waters. That’s a start to reviving the state’s commercial and recreational fishing industries, which collectively generate about $4 billion a year.

What the Seafood Promotion Board is seeking, however, is the means to change the public perception that fish from the Gulf is contaminated, which history suggests can be big chore.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill — which only affected Prince William Sound, a small portion of Alaska’s total commercial fishing area—nonetheless tainted the reputation of products from the whole state according to Ray Riutta, executive director at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

The state marketing organization spent $10 million a year for several years after the spill and brought in a public relations firm that specializes in crisis management to market Alaska seafood, he said. In addition, the state ran a rigorous testing program, said Riutta.

But surveys of consumers in other states showed that it took three to five years to rebuild confidence in the safety of Alaska’s fish, Riutta said.

“The impression (outside the state) was that all the fish in Alaska had oil on them,” he said. “The whole image of the state was tarnished by that and it took years to fix.”

Smith, executive director of the Louisiana seafood board, said the pattern is similar now: People outside the state have the image of thick oozing oil etched into their minds, and don’t realize that many fishing areas were untouched by the slick.

He wants to bring in some big guns to help change that perception.

“We will work with celebrity chefs across the nation, and they will help us get the news out,” he said

But long term, the job is more likely to involve relentless traditional marketing, said Smith.

“We need to bore the consumer out of their minds with good news,” he said.