Bowermaster’s Adventures: America’s Night out for Gulf Seafood

Last week, nearly 300 restaurants across the country joined in promoting an event they called “Dine Out America: America’s Night Out for Gulf Seafood.”

The mission was straightforward: Get folks around the country back to eating fish, oysters, shrimps and crabs taken from the Gulf of Mexico. The impetus was that while most of the Gulf’s fishing grounds have been reopened since the spill and while government continues to vouch for its seafood’s safety, the market for Gulf seafood remains depressed.

The “special night out,” according to the New Orleans group that organized the nationwide effort, was intended to “honor the thousands of Americans and their families in the Gulf seafood industry who are now back at work fishing the Gulf waters for their catches.”

Which sounds fine and good, in a patriotic, support-our-troops kind of way, but one big question remains: Are we sure seafood from the Gulf is truly ready for prime time?

News stories from the region are not reassuring. Oyster beds are on the ropes, many still buried under detritus stirred up by the spill. Pictures from a Navy ROV last week showed a 30 square mile kill zone on the ocean floor near the site of the spill where nothing lives. Fin fishermen report they’re coming in with catches but that the markets for their fish have disappeared, forcing them to sell for 35 cents on the dollar. And last week NOAA closed 4,200 square miles of fishing grounds to red shrimp after tar balls were found in the same nets.

I called my friend Marylee Orr who, for more than 23 years, has run the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (L.E.A.N) in Baton Rouge. One of the group’s expertises is studying the impacts of environmental pollution on human health.

Though she has many friends and supporters who are fishermen and certainly understands their plight – many are still unemployed, uncertain when they’ll get back to fishing — based on just-completed blood sampling done by Louisiana chemists she’s not convinced the nation should be being pitched Gulf seafood.

Her concerns are straightforward:

In the midst of the BP gusher the FDA (with NOAA’s input and concurrence) questionably raised the allowable levels of PAH (polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons) found in Gulf seafood. They are an EPA-classified carcinogen, particularly harmful to pregnant women and infants and the BP crude was full of PAHs. “The FDA based their decisions on a 175-pound person eating four shrimp a week, which is a joke on the Gulf,” she says, where four shrimp wouldn’t even qualify as an appetizer. “And what about all the children and our Vietnamese fishermen (who are smaller)?”

Much of the government’s evidence continues to be based on “sensory testing” – essentially giving seafood a sniff test. Only if a shrimp or fish does not pass the smell test does it go on to any further government testing. “We’ve given the seafood we’ve tested the smell test and there was no odor,” says Orr. “However when we got the numbers back after testing it there were alarmingly high for both petroleum hydrocarbons and PAHs.”

Orr and LEAN are not alone in their concerns. Ed Cake, an environmental consultant from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, recently told the International Conference on Shellfish Restoration, “They’re doing the sniff and taste test. We as human beings no longer have the nose of bloodhounds. I will not eat any seafood coming from the Central Gulf at this point.”

Chuck Hopkins, director of the Georgia Sea Grant Program at the University of Georgia told the same conference that he’d just been to New Orleans and had eaten shrimp and oysters six days in a row. But was it safe? Given the misleading information doled out by the government during the spill, he admitted he didn’t have a lot of faith in its current testing. “Why should I believe their claim that the seafood is safe?”

Perhaps the toughest and most consistent critic of any quick return to Gulf seafood has been Dr. William Sawyer of the Sanibel, Florida-based Toxicology Consultants and Assessment Specialists, who says since the spill he has found petroleum in 100 percent of the shrimp, oysters and fish he’s tested that was already on its way to the marketplace.

The government’s stand is that those toxins are far below dangerous levels.

But Sawyer is adamant. “I don’t recommend eating any Gulf seafood, not with the risk of liver and kidney damage.

He has called the FDA’s safety threshold “borderline absurd.” “It’s geared so that shrimpers can go back to work and that’s great … but if we’re talking about human health and the environment, you need to proceed slowly.”

Evidence of the dispersants used during the attempted cleanup continues to mount too. Off the coast of Florida, for example, since the BP well was capped the state’s Department of Environmental Protection has found the widely-used dispersant Corexit in two out of four tests; prior to the spill, they found no Corexit in 20 samples.

Flickr image via wolfpix