Published: Aug 17, 2010 10:48 AM EDT
Updated: Aug 17, 2010 7:48 AM EDT

GRAND ISLE, La. (AP) - Commercial shrimpers out for the first season since BP's disastrous spill indicated their catch was plentiful and free of oil, despite a report by scientists that muchvof the crude remains below the surface of the Gulf.

Fishermen spent much of the summer mopping up oil but got back to work as the fall shrimping season in Louisiana's coastal waters opened Monday amid anxiety over whether the catch will be tainted by crude and whether anyone will buy it even if it is clean.  "We're not seeing any oil where I'm at. No tar balls, nothing," said Brian Amos, a 53-year-old shrimper who trawled in his 28-foot skiff, The Rolling Thunder, in a bay near Empire.  It was a step toward normalcy for many coastal towns that have been in limbo in the nearly four months since the spill shut down fishing, an economic linchpin for dock owners, restaurants and many other businesses along the Louisiana coast. Louisiana ranks first in the nation in shrimp, blue crab, crawfish and oysters, and the state's seafood industry overall generates an estimated $2.4 billion a year.

Also Monday, five Georgia scientists who reviewed government data said that instead of only 26 percent of the oil remaining in the Gulf, as a federal report said earlier this month, it's actually closer to 80 percent. "Where has all the oil gone? It hasn't gone anywhere. It still lurks in the deep," said University of Georgia marine scientist Chuck Hopkinson. He headed the quick independent look by the Georgia Sea Grant program at the estimates the White House released.

White House energy adviser Carol Browner said on morning news shows earlier this month: "More than three-quarters of the oil is gone. The vast majority of the oil is gone."

The Georgia team said it is a misinterpretation of data to claim that oil that is dissolved or dispersed is gone. "The bottom line is most of it is still out there," Hopkinson told The Associated Press. "There's nothing in the report to substantiate the 26 percent."

Amos and his fellow shrimpers were working in Louisiana's state-controlled waters, which extend three miles from shore.  Shrimpers who ply those waters lost most of their spring season -which runs from mid-May to early July - because of the spill. The fall shrimping season runs from mid-August to December.

Shrimping is also open in state-controlled waters off Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas. Federal waters, which are open nearly year-round for boats to trawl for bigger shrimp, remain closed to shrimping off Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, though some spots could open within days, depending on the results of extensive tests.

Laboratory tests on seafood from the Gulf have shown little hazard from oil, and a test is being developed for the chemicals used to disperse the crude, though there is no evidence they build up in seafood. Still, shrimpers are worried that the public won'tvwant what they catch.  "I feel that we have had a bad rap on the perception of our product," said Andrew Blanchard, who waited Monday for shrimp boats to arrive at his processing plant in Chauvin. Fewer arrived than normal, five versus the usual 20 on a normal opening day, but he said that was because most boats are still doing cleanup work for BP, not because of any problem with the shrimp.