As a self-proclaimed connoisseur of New Orleans cuisine, my 5th thought after last year’s BP oil spill gulf disaster (after “good lord, haven’t they been through enough?” “of course Halliburton is connected to this,” “at least this will get people to reconsider all the drilling,” and “so much for scuba diving off the east coast of Mexico for, like, ever.”) was about the safety of the gulf seafood. After all, the Gulf of Mexico supplies 40 percent of the seafood harvested in the continental US, including more than 70 percent of the shrimp and two-thirds of the oysters harvested domestically, but the region only accounts for two percent of what we consume domestically, since 83 percent of what we consume is imported. While there are few things better than a big plate of Crawfish Étouffée, I much prefer the gulf mudbugs to the Chinese ones.
In the immediate days during and after the spill, when authorities shut down fishing in one-third of the gulf, prices for shrimp and oysters soared, causing many restaurants and distributers to both raise their prices and look elsewhere for their sourcing, naturally raising prices everywhere. Since then, the economic impact has moderately subsided, though prices still remain higher than the pre-spill levels, and much of the operations that had barely rebounded post-Katrina have yet to return to normal, even though many authorities say the seafood is safe to eat.
So the biggest question from lovers of étouffée, crawfish boils, Cajun shrimp and fried oyster Po’ Boys is: how safe are those gulf critters? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) both insist that gulf seafood is safe after going through rigorous testing. NOAA describes the testing process as follows:
NOAA, the FDA and the Gulf states agreed to follow the same plan: first, oiled waters had to be closed to fishing. Once oil was no longer observed in the area, seafood samples were taken, following a sampling plan approved by the FDA. The closer an area was to the site of the spill, the more samples were taken. Once back at the lab, all the samples from that area had to pass both a sensory (smell and taste) and a chemical test. If even one sample failed, the area could not be opened to fishing.
And, according to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, a person who eats 63 pounds of shrimp or crab, five pounds of oysters or nine pounds of fish every day for five years still would not pass the FDA’s contaminates threshold of concern. Sorry, fans of Red Lobster’s Endless Shrimp. At least you aren’t part of the “smell and taste” testing at the FDA.
For the rest of us, there still may be reason for concern. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the ecological effects of the spill may be much more damaging than originally thought. According to researchers at Louisiana State, Texas State and Clemson universities, fish living in marshes along the gulf coastline that were exposed to both oil and dispersants used in the cleanup have undergone abnormal changes at the cellular level, such as impaired gills.
“Their biology is telling us that they’ve been a), exposed to these chemicals and b), affected by them in negative ways,” said Andrew Whitehead, an associate professor of biology at LSU and the paper’s lead author. “Very low-level exposures can cause these toxic effects.”
The problem is not being wiped out as the cleanup process progresses. While much of the oil has been removed or dispersed with chemicals that one recent study indicated may be carcinogenic, oil that has made it to the gulf floor is not degrading. So storms, such as the recent tropical storm Lee, can dredge up the hydrocarbon-rich sediment and expose more species.
“You can have a fish that’s safe to eat but is still not healthy,” said Whitehead. “The sediments are going to act as this long-term reservoir of oil, of potential exposure.”
Are you comfortable enough to eat gulf seafood?