Why do we love Gulf seafood? For one, it wasn’t raised on a factory farm. “If people want to eat local, it’s the last wild food in abundance,” says Jim Gossen, chairman of Houston-based Sysco Louisiana Foods. Two, it delivers what so many foods these days cannot: assurance of provenance. And three, it is bracingly fresh and delicious, whether served up in an oyster-thickened gumbo or a rustic Cajun-style boil, an old-fashioned platter of fried shrimp or an elegant plate of blue crab claws.
Gossen, a Louisiana native who’s been in the seafood business for more than 40 years, first came to Texas in 1975. At the time, he recalls, locals didn’t care much for tuna, beyond the canned stuff. What fishermen caught from the vast schools in the Gulf, they mostly exported to Japan.
Locals otherwise enjoyed their Gulf seafood, of course, but they also took it for granted. There was little to no regulation of the region’s fleet, which had overfished the ocean waters for decades. Over time, however, meaningful restrictions were put in place, such as quotas managing how many fish are caught in a season. As a result, today, depleted fishery populations are slowly returning.
Surprisingly, the 2010 BP oil spill didn’t much hamper progress, as repeated testing has shown that the Texas waters—and the inhabitants within—are as clean as ever. “We have the healthiest and most vibrant fishery in the country,” says chef, restaurateur and Gulf seafood champion Bryan Caswell, who opened his flagship Midtown restaurant, Reef, in 2007 and has helped to spark a revitalized awareness of Gulf species from amberjack to stingray, formerly discarded as trash fish.
Today the Gulf still produces more than half the nation’s oysters and shrimp, not to mention the abundance of fish found mostly or exclusively in those waters. But issues, of course, remain. For one thing, not all species are properly protected. Oysters are still vulnerable to over-harvesting, not to mention weather fluctuations.
And our love for Gulf seafood remains tempered by economic realities. Local shrimp fisherman are opting out of the game because they find it tough to compete, price-wise, with Asia, while each year we still lose much of our crab to other markets willing to pay more for it than we are (be sure to ask if that jumbo lump crab is really Gulf blue crab or the less expensive, less tasty varieties from Indonesia, China and Baja California).
Still, much progress has been made in fewer than 10 years, and chefs like Caswell are convinced that yet more positive change is on the way as more diners begin to ask questions about the origins of what’s on their plates, and realize it’s worth it to pay for high-quality Gulf seafood.
“The only way a restaurant can be great is if it serves stuff from its place,” says Caswell. “It’s cool that I’m doing good food that people like, but a true, amazing regional restaurant is telling a story about where it’s from.”