Food Engineering

How safe is Gulf seafood?

September 2, 2010
Several public and private groups, as well as scientists, feel opening of Gulf fisheries is premature, and sample testing has been inadequate.


Although FDA has listed several areas where seafood has tested safe, other public and private groups do not agree on contamination levels of seafood caught in the Gulf following the oil spill. FDA maintains an updated report on its website, entitled Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: Reopening of Closed Waters Information by State. The website also provides maps, test data on sampled seafood and other useful information.

Environmental Attorney Stuart H. Smith (Smith Stag LLC) thinks more scrutiny is needed. “Independent water and seafood testing and analyses by Gulf Oil Disaster Recovery experts reveal that highly toxic chemicals remain in the water and food chain. These toxins pose a significant risk to marine reproduction and human consumption of Gulf seafood.”

Smith says FDA data shows it might not have taken samples in contaminated waters, and the Gulf area needs at least eight more months to recover. Smith represents the United Commercial Fishermen’s Association, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, public and private entities, and citizens harmed by the BP oil catastrophe.

“The greatest concern is the presence of chemicals known as PAHs (or polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons), which have carcinogenic properties. Our studies have shown that PAHs are present in shrimp from the impacted Gulf areas of the spill at 10 times the levels found in shrimp from inland, low-impacted areas,” says Smith.

In a page of definitions, the US Geological Survey says, “PAHs often are byproducts of petroleum processing or combustion. Many of these compounds are highly carcinogenic at relatively low levels.”

“BP’s use of dispersants at 5,000 feet below the sea surface caused PAHs and other toxic substances to remain in the seawater,” says Smith. “This means biodegradation of the toxins in crude oil is greatly reduced. It could be at least eight months before the toxic soup we are seeing in the Gulf experiences significant biodegradation, due to low temperatures, lack of sunlight and other factors,” he adds.

Dr. Samantha Joye, marine biologist and professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia, is heading out to sea for a month to do additional testing. She suggests there are still several unknowns-effects of dispersants, sedimentary oil and methane-and “While some of the oil has certainly evaporated, much of it was dispersed, and this oil is still floating around, invisible to our eyes, within the ocean’s water column,” she reports in her University of Georgia blog. “The fact that this oil is invisible makes it no less of a danger to the Gulf’s fragile ecosystems.” In addition to the hidden oil, Joye reports methane concentrations in the Gulf’s deep waters are extremely high and deplete oxygen, but more widespread testing needs to be done over larger areas to discover the effects of methane.  

“The impacts of the oil, gas and dispersant on the Gulf’s ecosystems will be felt for years, if not decades. We cannot pretend the danger has passed for it has not,” Joye warns.

Smith insists that hasty decisions to re-open commercial fishing in selected off-shore areas, which provides seafood to consumers in Louisiana and Mississippi, were based upon as few as a single shrimp sample from Louisiana off-shore waters and two shrimp samples from Mississippi off-shore waters (rendered as composites from 12 shrimp). Smith says all these samples had detectable levels of PAH. “Official documents from FDA confirm that the recommendations to re-open selected areas for commercial harvesting were based on insufficient samples for state authorities to render responsible decisions. A thorough review of all available FDA test results to date further confirms our findings,” says Smith.