HomeCultureThe Spill: A Year Later

The Spill: A Year Later

A year after the oil spill, is Gulf seafood really safe to eat, and can we trust the people, like celebrity Chef Alton Brown, who tell us it is?
by Erin Z. Bass

On April 20 of last year, news broke that more than 3 million barrels of crude oil were leaking into the Gulf of Mexico after an explosion on a BP rig offshore. On April 24, the Coast Guard announced that oil was leaking from two locations at a rate of 42,000 gallons a day. On April 25, that estimate was increased to 210,000 gallons, and BP announced that a third leak had been found. By April 29, the oil spill stretched 120 miles and had become a threat to the Louisiana coast, as well as the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Ten days later, only the smallest leak had been stopped, and engineers seriously discussed stopping the leak by stuffing in trash. Meanwhile, nearly 46,000 miles of Gulf waters became closed to fishing. By May 27, more than a month after the initial spill, the disaster was declared the largest spill in U.S. history and surpassed Exxon Valdez from 1989, which leaked about 11 million gallons into the Gulf.

It was not until the end of July that BP announced the worst of the spill was over. By that time, oil and tar balls had washed up on beaches, wrecked summer vacation destinations’ tourist seasons and put lots of fishermen and shrimpers out of work.

While seafood from the Gulf was available last summer, supplies were low and prices high. Diners had to make a choice as to whether or not they were going to eat it and restaurants whether they were going to serve it, and the FDA began to set safety levels for seafood that may have come in contact with oil. Places like Biloxi, Gulf Shores and Destin were fighting the perception that their beaches were covered in oil and so were organizations like the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board fighting perception that all seafood was full of oil.

Now, a year later, some of that perception remains, but scientists and Chef Alton Brown say there’s no truth to it.

“It is true to say that seafood from the Gulf would be the most intensely tested seafood anywhere on the planet,” says Director of NOAA’s Seafood Safety Program Dr. John Stein. He describes the testing process as taking place in two parts, first by a sensory panel trained to detect both oil and dispersant and then by an analytical chemistry test to look for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are the most common contaminants associated with seafood. “If it passed that test, then it was considered safe,” says Dr. Stein.

The seafood Stein is referring to was coming from closed areas of Gulf waters, and he notes that areas were not reopened until seafood samples from them tested safe to eat. It was announced on Tuesday of this week that the last area to be closed, located closest to where the leak began, has been reopened. But that doesn’t mean testing will stop. Dr. Stein says his team has gone back into once closed waters to conduct further testing and is about 50 percent of the way through.

“That was to develop more data so the public could look at that data and hopefully improve their perception of the safety of Gulf seafood,” he says. “What the samples have shown to date is that they confirm it was safe to reopen, and the seafood coming from the area continues to have very low levels, and mainly nondetectable, levels of both PAHs and the marker compound for the dispersent. It confirms that when we reopened, the seafood was safe, and if confirms that now it continues to be safe for human consumption.”

Has Stein eaten the seafood himself? He says he ate as much Gulf seafood as he could get his hands on last summer while he was in the area heading up NOAA’s effort and wants to remind people about its health benefits. “Like in all things in our life, we have to balance those benefits and risks. What our testing showed was that the risks were extremely low, if existed at all, and the health benefits of Gulf seafood are extremely high,” he says. Stein (pictured below with Chef Alton Brown) also traveled down to Dauphin Island, Alabama, March 25-27 for the island’s Gumbo Cookoff and what was dubbed a weekend of “Seafood, Science and Celebrity.”

Many people may not realize that Dauphin Island is home to a marine laboratory that has one of the largest residential programs for training in coastal sciences. (An oyster reef exhibit from its adjoining estuarium resource center is pictured below.) Sea Lab Executive Director Dr. George Crozier says his team was already conducting sampling in the Gulf before the spill and had a good idea of what ecosystems and waters looked like before. Because of this, some of his statements are pretty surprising. “We didn’t get much exposure to oil,” he says. “Most of this material didn’t stay in the Gulf of Mexico and didn’t get into habitats.”

Crozier is upset that the perception around the country is so different from what he’s seeing and has been speaking to groups outside of the region and on the East Coast to try and change that perception. “I was one that never thought seafood was in any particular jeopardy,” he adds. “What happens is the sharply toxic substances that do damage are in fact high-energy sources for the bacterial community, so they’re digested quickly. I think this surprised everybody.”

It’s important to explain here how that digestion works, since it’s the reason why seafood exposed to oil isn’t necessarily unsafe to eat. Fish and shrimp metabolize PAH in the liver and then excrete it. They don’t carry it around in their bodies, and the oil doesn’t have the chance to touch any of their edible tissue, therefore, the parts we eat haven’t been exposed to oil or PAHs. It’s also important to note that this doesn’t necessarily pertain to oysters, which can build up PAHs. That’s why so many oyster beds haven’t been reopened, and a lot of the oysters we’re eating now are coming from Texas.

Also in town for Dauphin Island’s big weekend was celebrity Chef Alton Brown, who judged the gumbo cookoff and took a ride on a shrimp boat (with myself and other members of the media) to talk to about the safety of Gulf seafood and life on the coast. Brown, who lives in Marietta, Georgia, said he’s been up and down the coast from Galveston to Florida and if he only had to eat seafood from within a hundred miles of Dauphin Island for the rest of his life, he’d be happy. He’s had an interest in sustainable seafood for a long time and says the spill only heightened his interest in the sustainability of seafood along the Gulf coast. “It’s not a bad thing for the seafood necessarily,” he says about the spill, “it will give populations here time to reflourish. It’s bad for those making a living though.”

Judging the Gumbo Cookoff, which had plenty of seafood entries, as well as attending a party at the Dauphin Island Estuarium that featured rooms filled with seafood dishes, Brown ate his share throughout the weekend and had this to say about its safety. “Seafood is safe, life’s dangerous.” Asked if viewers would be seeing any footage from the weekend on an upcoming episode of his show, “Good Eats,” he said no, but that he’d be back within the year.

So, it’s clear the message here is that seafood is safe to eat, but that doesn’t mean effects of the spill don’t still linger. Just yesterday, followers of @sweetolive on Twitter got reports of oil soaking into the marsh off the coast of Louisiana. Olivia Watkins (who took the aerial shot at the top of the story) works with the state’s Department of Wildlife & Fisheries and says that cleanup is still necessary along the coast, especially to protect birds like brown pelicans, who pick up the marsh grass for their nests. Crozier admits that while conditions in the Gulf look good now, it’s too early to tell what longterm effects the spill might have. “What’s going to happen to the quality of fish a year or two from now?” he asks.

For now, a new marketing campaign by the Alabama Coastal Recovery Commission designed to coincide with the oil spill anniversary is asking people to look at the facts, get involved in the campaign and spread the message. In the words of Dr. Stein, “You don’t want to be not eating seafood because you perceive some risk that doesn’t exist.”




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