Photo Credit: C. Gray/Getty Images
For the first time in nearly three months, oil has stopped gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. While that is good news, experts estimate that more than 91 million gallons of oil have leaked since a drilling platform exploded last April, fouling beaches and endangering wildlife. With 40 percent of fish consumed in America coming from the Gulf -- and one-third of those fishing waters now closed -- we're left wondering if Gulf seafood in markets and restaurants is still safe to eat.
Dr. John Stein, manager for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's seafood safety program, says seafood lovers have no reason to fear. "If it is good seafood from a good store or fishmonger, the public can be sure that it is free of contaminants. They can consume it with great confidence."
Yet even Stein can understand why shoppers are jittery. Despite government assurances to the contrary, a study by the University of Minnesota found that 44 percent of people surveyed said they will only eat seafood if they know it does not come from the Gulf. A recent article in The New York Times reports that diners at restaurants around the country regularly ask why fish from the Gulf is still on menus.
The government has gone to great lengths to test the waters and protect consumers from contaminated seafood. Three national agencies are involved in the comprehensive watchdog plan. The NOAA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency met in late June to discuss and evaluate the closure of affected waters to guarantee food safety. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard polices those areas to ensure that no fishing is taking place.
To test for oil contamination, the NOAA Seafood Inspection Program employs specialist teams who perform a chemical analysis of the seafood tissue, as well as expert sniffers who conduct sensory tests. The chemical dispersants used in areas where oil is present would also be detected during this testing. If a sample fails either of these tests, fishing is closed in that area and the seafood is not sold. Once the oil leak is contained, NOAA will begin testing fish from the closed areas, and if they pass the above-mentioned tests, the waters will be reopened to fishing. Tests will be run in each area twice as a precautionary measure, Stein says.
While experts are saying it is still safe to eat seafood from the Gulf, the future of the Gulf seafood industry remains uncertain. Three major shrimp species are found in the Gulf, and blue crab, stone crab and Gulf stone crab all make their home there, netting millions of dollars a year for Florida, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama. Oysters and fish like red snapper are big sellers from the region as well. Changes in the habitat could certainly affect markets for years to come.
"The fisherman and NOAA fisheries have a close relationship," says NOAA public affairs specialist Christine Patrick. "There is no question that fisherman have been negatively affected as a result of the spill. The public should avoid boycotting what is legal and fresh from our own fisherman."