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Gulf oil spill: Louisiana fish and shrimp get thumbs-up

July 30, 2010 |  5:22 pm

Shrimp
Is Louisiana seafood safe to eat? U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg on Friday heartily endorsed the decision of Louisiana fisheries officials to reopen wide swaths of state coastal waters to commercial fishing and shrimping.

“We all feel very confident with the reopening of this water to the fishing of fin fish and shrimp,” she said at a news conference on New Orleans’ riverfront. “This is our first major opening of the state waters to commercial fishing, so it really is something to celebrate.”

The reopened areas, about 2,400 square miles, are mostly east of New Orleans and the Mississippi
River Delta. Areas south of the delta, including Terrebonne and Barataria bays, are still being slimed with oil and remain shut.

About 84,000 square miles of federal fishing waters, farther offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, are still off limits to commercial fishing; any decision to reopen those waters is up to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is currently reassessing the danger.

“FDA’s job is to promote and protect health, and our role has been to oversee the scientific testing of seafood samples ... and confirm that, in fact, they do not have levels of oil residue that could be harmful to human health,” Hamburg said.

Harvests of crabs and oysters remain banned. Testing of crabmeat is more complex and takes longer. Oysters will probably be the last seafood to be approved for consumption, partly because they cannot move to cleaner waters and because harmful substances are more likely to accumulate in the body of the oysters.

These have been trying times for New Orleans restaurants. Shrimp prices on menus have risen in recent weeks, and oysters are off the tables at many -- but not all -- eateries.

The oyster ban has been especially distressing. Louisiana's 1.6 million acres of public oyster beds, and more than half of its 400,000 privately leased acres, are off limits. Hundreds of oystermen have stopped fishing. Processors have shut down. Gulf restaurants have closed, and chains such as Red Lobster have yanked the briny morsels off their menus. What supplies remain have more than doubled in price, with some restaurateurs paying $200 for a 150-count case.

For weeks, federal scientists have been painstakingly testing gulf seafood. In the early days of the spill, fish were contaminated with oil or dispersant, a chemical mixture applied to the slick that, like detergent, broke the oil into tiny, invisible particles.

But with the leaking well snugly capped since July 15, visible signs of huge oil slicks have disappeared from large sections of the gulf. The initial testing for fish samples includes a sniff test for oil or dispersant. If a scientist’s nose detected oil or dispersant, the fish failed the test, and the fishing ban continued. But if the fish passed the test, the sample underwent extensive chemical analysis to confirm whether the fish was fit to eat.

“The levels tested [for unhealthy contaminants] were extremely low. They were significantly below the threshold of concern,” Hamburg said. “I think the tests are very clear.”

Hamburg said officials would keep an eye on sea life to see whether oil later presented a problem. “We always have to be vigilant,” she cautioned. “Just because the waters are safe for reopening fishing today doesn’t mean that something can’t change. But at the moment, this is good news.

“These waters have been carefully examined, in terms of oil contamination and in terms of the safety of the seafood to be harvested from these waters. And we all feel very confident standing here today that the products that will be harvested from these waters will be safe, wholesome and delicious.”

It will take at least several days, if not longer, for the fishing industry to reboot. Some fishermen are still working as BP contractors to assist in oil cleanup efforts. Logistical challenges, such as purchasing ice, must be overcome before fishing runs can resume.

-- Rong-Gong Lin II in New Orleans

Photo: Shrimp peeling at a Louisiana plant in 2003. Credit: Jaclyn McCabe / For The Times

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