By Virginia DiBianca
When being advised to follow a healthy diet, the one food that is indisputably on the top of the list is fish. Its Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals keep our heart pumping and our blood pressure low. It is an easy food to cook, requiring little preparation and, in most cases, done in less than 30 minutes. It is almost impossible to make a bad dish with fish unless, of course, the fish itself has been contaminated.
With the recent environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which was formally known to produce quality fish, particularly shellfish, fish lovers now question the safety of the fish coming from the Gulf. Do we believe the government agencies that maintain the fish from the Gulf is safe or do we stop buying, adding to the sorry economic state of the Gulf fishermen’s woes, who are just recovering from Hurricane Katrina?
Testing by Federal Agencies
One month after the spill occurred, consumers began expressing reasonable concern as to whether the fish coming from the Gulf was contaminate free. To address public concern, in July 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in conjunction with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began testing the fish to determine its safety to consumers as well as to the fishermen. As a precautionary measure, NOAA closed fishing and shellfish harvesting in areas in the Gulf that were exposed to the spilled oil. The fish outside the closed areas was tested for petroleum compounds. While oil is composed of many chemicals, it is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are carcinogenic if consumed in sufficient amounts over long periods of time. Another indicator of tainted seafood is the smell. If a petroleum odor is detected, the fish would be considered unacceptable for consumption.
NOAA has the authority to close and open the waters in the Gulf and actively uses that power to meet their obligation to the public. A sampling conducted between August and September 19 indicated the sample fish (shrimp, finfish and composites) showed no sign of oil or dispersant odors or flavors. As results continued to prove the fish were safe, fishing areas were re-opened. At its peak, 37% (88,522 square miles) of the Gulf fisheries were closed. As of October 1, 2010, 89% of those closed fishing areas were once again operational.
While all tests produced results indicating no signs of contamination, consumer confidence continued to mistrust the fish coming from the Gulf. In November 2010, NOAA and the FDA announced it would conduct a second chemical test on the Gulf seafood for dispersant. Taking 1,735 tissue samples, the FDA reported that trace amounts of dispersant residue (in 13 of the 1,735 samples) were found below the safety threshold for shrimp, crabs and oysters and that there was no scientific evidence that dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate (DSS), a major part of the dispersant, had accumulated in the fish tissues.
“The rigorous testing we have done from the very beginning gives us confidence in the safety of seafood being brought to market from the Gulf,” said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., under secretary for commerce and NOAA administrator. “This test adds another layer of information, reinforcing our findings to date that seafood from the Gulf remains safe.” As of February 2011, 1,041 square miles of an area immediately surrounding the wellhead is the only section still closed by NOAA.
The Unfortunate Oysters
Of all the seafood in the Gulf, the oyster population has been the one specie that has been the one most deeply effected from the spill. Oysters are creatures highly sensitive to the quality of their environment. They feed by filtering nutrients out of seawater. Because they are immobile, they accumulate the chemicals and pollutants making them vulnerable to the spills effects. The spilled oil penetrated the water column and formed a thick oil slick that reached the shores of the Gulf Coast contaminating everything in its way including the world’s last, largely intact network of oyster reefs.
An attempt to reverse the damage actually caused more destruction to the oyster beds. In a coordinated effort by the Coast Guard, BP and the Army Corp of Engineers, water diversion gates were opened to flood fresh water from the Mississippi River hoping to push the oil out of the Louisiana coastal marshes. This action might have saved other species, however the oyster population that thrives on coastal living has been severely damaged.
The timing of the spill was also against the oysters. The BP spill occurred during the peak spawning period for oysters. Oysters reproduce by releasing egg and sperm into the water that attach to the hard-surface bottom that becomes their home. With toxins in the water, oysters protect themselves by keeping their shells closed, which eventually suffocates them.
In January 2011, a weekend was dedicated to the first of a program to rebuild 100 miles of new oyster reefs along the shorelines of Alabama. The effort was partially funded by NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As a spokesman for The Natural Conservancy stated, 85% of the world’s natural oyster reefs have already been lost due to development, pollution and now, the BP oil spill. Oyster reefs are important not only for consumption but in marine life. They promote new growth, help protect delicate salt marshes and sea grasses, and act like coral in the tropics to provide habitat for numerous marine species across Mobile Bay.
In addition to the public perception of tainted seafood, a supply shortage has further complicated the issue. With oyster beds damaged, only 1% of the men who usually harvest oysters are actually doing so. One main reason is that they have been hired as part of the cleanup crew, work that for now, is more profitable with some crews paying as much as $2,000 a day. As a result, restaurants in New Orleans that have featured local seafood began last summer to re-evaluate their menus and consider less expensive ways of serving the popular local fare.
Defined by their Cuisine
Fish, particularly shellfish, is deeply ingrained in the states along the Gulf Coast as a way of life. New Orleans’s cuisine made popular by celebrity chefs such as Emeril Lagasse and his predecessor, Paul Prudhomme of the famous Commander’s Palace Restaurant, boast some of the best seafood recipes anywhere, using local catches. Traditional meals include Jambalaya and Gumbo using shrimp, po’boy sandwiches made with oysters and crawfish dinners called etouffee. These chefs emphasize how it is in their best interest to serve the fish from the Gulf with confidence. No restaurateur would take the chance of being known as the establishment that served their patrons tainted fish.
Seafood is how many along the Gulf make their living. Recently, at a symposium on the aftermath of the BP oil spill held at Ramapo College of New Jersey, Mr. Thomas Costanza of Catholic Charities of New Orleans addressed how the loss of work has affected the Gulf fishermen. While Hurricane Katrina destroyed the property of those in the Gulf, it did not come close to the devastation of what it means to lose one’s livelihood as when the spilled oil contaminated their fisheries. Oyster beds, which take three years before they are re-established, have been ruined. Last summer’s harvest of brown shrimp from the gulf was one of the smallest seen in years. Juvenile crabs are in very small numbers.
Michael Voisin, president of Motivatit Seafoods, an oyster processing company in Houma, La., reports his business is down 60% after the spill, with recovery at a slow pace. The state’s fisheries are projected to lose $74 million this year from the lingering impact of the oil spill.
Fishermen are suffering from depression that is leading to an increase in alcoholism. Claims from the fishing industry to BP go unpaid. The fishermen are asking for help to be re-trained in their profession, and to reconstruct their oyster beds and fisheries. BP has denied the claims from oystermen asserting that the pumping of freshwater into the beds was a maneuver unapproved by the Unified Command who oversee the oil spill response. It was the water, not the oil, BP claims, that caused the ruination of the oyster beds. In the meantime, claims go unsatisfied, under a pile of papers.
So Is the Fish Safe?
The decision to eat the fish from the Gulf of Mexico comes down to each person’s individual belief. Government sponsored tests have all indicated there are no traces of contamination in the Gulf seafood. After extensive examination of how fish react to polluted waters after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, a report issued by the National Marine Fisheries Services determined that fish metabolize and excrete foreign materials such as oil. It can be said that the fish from the Gulf has undergone the most comprehensive testing ever to ensure the public’s health and safety. There are restaurants and fish markets that are carrying the seafood from the Gulf without reported problems.
On the other side, it is unclear how consumers can know whether tainted shrimp or oysters, for example, might still be harvested from closed or unexamined areas and sold, despite these precautions. The national perception is of caution as the long-term effects are yet to be known. Even though the oil has dissipated, there is uncertainty as to how much remains below the surface. Scientific evidence states that bacteria, plankton and other tiny creatures have consumed the oil. These creatures, eaten by small fish, crabs and shrimp that can be eaten by bigger fish jeopardize the safety of sea life for human consumption. As most all studies on the Gulf contamination admit, the future effects are yet to be determined.
Consequently, many seafood lovers have become more inquisitive about the food they are buying. When recently dining at a local well-established restaurant, a nearby diner asked the waiter where the fish was from before placing their dinner order. Markets selling fresh seafood are also questioned as to the origin of the fish, particularly the shrimp. At a respected fish market, when asked, the fishmonger informed his customer that the shrimp came from Louisiana. The customer then turned and bought the Chilean Sea Bass. It is their choice, after all.
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About the Author
Virginia DiBianca is a third year student at Ramapo College majoring in Communication Arts. Taking a strong interest in how the environment has affected her, she is turning down fish from the Gulf Coast at seafood markets and restaurants for now.