Gulf Seafood: Finally Safe to Eat?

Scientists are still years away from determining the full impact of the BP oil disaster. Are fears of tainted fish and shellfish justified?


More than a year after last year's Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a nagging question lingers: Is it safe to eat seafood from the Gulf of Mexico?

At the Monterey Bay Aquarium's annual Cooking for Solutions Sustainable Foods Institute last week, marine scientists, experts from environmental groups, and members of the fishing community—who rarely agree on anything—answered that question with a unanimous "yes."

"There is still a lot of science to be done, but it seems like we dodged a bullet. We got lucky," said Tim Fitzgerald of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Fitzgerald, who created EDF's SeafoodSafe program to monitor chemical contamination in fish, has spent much of the last year focusing on the Gulf.

"I don't think we will see major problems with contaminants in Gulf Seafood," he said. "But we're not taking anything for granted. We're continuing to work with the fishing industry to look for the possibility of contamination from dispersants just to make sure."

George Crozier has been executive director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama since 1979, a position that has earned him the status of the grand old man of Gulf research. "The resiliency of the Gulf ecosystem surprised us," he said.

According to Crozier, most of the oil never reached the surface. Naturally occurring bacteria broke the oil down into its molecular components. "Those bacteria eat oil like people eat beignets in New Orleans," he added.

But he cautioned that scientists are "only beginning to scratch the surface" of the non-lethal damage that oil washing into shallow areas and marshes might have done to the eggs and larvae of Gulf species. The final assessment of that might take as long as five years, when the juveniles will reach breeding age.

But the fisheries face a disaster of another sort, according to Crozier. "We don't have a problem with the animals in the Gulf," he said. "But we do have a problem with erroneous seafood contamination perceptions among consumers that have created a financial disaster."

The year 2010, according to Crozier, was a lost season for fishermen because there was no market for their catch due to misguided consumer resistance. "There are a lot of fish out there that normally would have been in someone's freezer," he said. "Humans have not responded to the spill as fast as the natural system."

The Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders' Alliance, a fishermen's group, has launched a program called Gulf Wild. It includes a system of transparency that allows buyers to track fish back to the source, including the boat, fisherman, and exact location where it was caught. It also includes periodic testing of fish like grouper and red snapper for potentially toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (byproducts of burning oil), heavy metals, and other contaminants. "We are working to overcome the public's perception that there are problems with Gulf seafood," said TJ Tate, the executive director of the alliance.

The oil spill comes at a particularly unfortunate time for Gulf reef fishermen. A few years ago, they agreed to management systems for grouper and red snapper that included lower catch limits and quotas, or catch shares, for each boat. The severely depleted fish stocks have begun to recover. The fishermen should be out on the water reaping the rewards for the sacrifices they made on behalf of conservation.

Image: Sean Gardner/Reuters