At the height of the BP oil spill last year I remember telling a friend that the disaster was the final nail in the coffin for south Louisiana, the last straw in a long litany of economic, environmental and man-made catastrophes to wreck the state.

At the very least, I predicted, the millions of gallons of oil that were billowing into the Gulf every day would certainly be the death knell of the state’s all-important seafood industry.

Terry LeBlanc, a recreational fisherman, wasn’t buying it.

“In a year,” he said, confidently, “We’ll all be eating seafood again and everything will be back to normal.”

I was so glad, earlier this year, when it seemed I had lost that argument. How wrong, it seemed, I had been. (Not the first time, mind you). Life was, indeed, back to normal.

Or was it?

In the last couple of weeks, we have learned of troubling data from the scientific and seafood communities that suggests our seafood industry is reeling in ways we are only beginning to fathom as a direct result of the contamination from the spill.

And really, it’s not surprising. All that oil we witnessed escaping into our waters as we watched the drama unfold had to be going somewhere, affecting something, didn’t it?

We are only beginning to find out the extent of what it did. A Sept. 26 report from LSU researchers has found that exposure to oil causes changes in fish genes that could have implications for future fish populations.

Equally troubling are reports from area shrimpers, who say this year’s harvest is significantly lower than in recent years. According to Dean Blanchard, the owner of a shrimp dock in Grand Isle, beaches in that community are producing just 1 percent of the shrimp they usually do.

Think about that for a minute because it’s a troubling statistic in a state that counts seafood as one of its larger industries, with a $2.4 billion annual economic impact.

But what we do make of it, and how to help?

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s important not to give up on Louisiana seafood out of panic or fear. We need to watch carefully what unfolds in the months ahead, but also trust that the locally harvested seafood that makes it to market is safe to eat.

Besides, I’d take homegrown seafood over frozen Chinese crustaceans or fish fillets any day. At least we know what kind of cont aminants our seafood has potentially been exposed to and that state and federal regulators are monitoring it more closely now than ever before.

(Heaven knows what kind of toxic stew Chinese mudbugs marinate in before they’re caught and exported.)

It’s also important to support local fisherman and shrimpers, who have struggled in recent years and are realizing that 2011-2012 will not be as bountiful as they had hoped. Louisiana seafood represents a vital part of our economy and it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep it thriving.

But the bigger picture issue is that as we become more aware of the long-term implications of the BP spill we have to be more vigilant and informed than in the past about what is happening in our marshes and offshore waters and, by extension, to our marine life. For too long, we have taken it for granted and let others exploit it.

We cannot afford to let that happen any more, for the sake of our physical, environmental or economic well being. It’s time that we all take a more heightened interest in our seafood industry and in protecting the environment that supports it.