Photo via avlxyz @ Flickr
Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April, everyone from chef Tom Colicchio to President Barack Obama has come out to promise that Gulf Coast seafood is as safe and delicious as it ever was -- and to remind the rest of us that boycotting it won't help the regional fisherman who rely on that demand for their livelihood. But is it safe? Here's the lowdown -- and it's a bit murky.As of June 28, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had closed off about 1/3 of the Gulf -- an area just slightly smaller than the state of Kansas -- from commercial fisherman. So far, the organization says that of the 400 fish it has tested for contaminants -- both from inside and outside the spill area -- zero have shown "concerning levels."
The Long Term Effects of BP Oil on Food Safety are Unclear
But NOAA is testing for PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) which are basic carcinogens found in crude oil, and not, according to Pro Publica, for the chemical dispersants used to deal with the oil. Though a joint statement from the FDA and NOAA refers to the dispersants as having a "low potential to bioaccumulate in seafood" and "low in human toxicity," the long-term effects just aren't clear.
FDA spokeswoman Meghan Scott told Pro Publica, "There's not a huge body of research that has been done. While we are finding that [dispersant] is harmful to the living fish itself, there's a difference between what it does to a living fish and any harm that might have for a human consuming a fish that was in or near water with dispersant in it.
And while the Gulf Coast is known for it's seafood -- it's a $2.4 billion-a-year industry just in Louisiana -- you might not be eating as much of it as you think you are if you live outside the South: In a blog for Cool Green Science, Bill Finch, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, says that the lower states rely on the Gulf for about 40 percent of their seafood supply, but the rest of the country only buys half that amount from the Gulf (though other coastal states pull food from their own waters, farm-raised fish and shrimp from Asia make up a large part of the difference). But that's just one more reason to know what you're eating -- and where it came from -- especially since currents could eventually take the oil up the East Coast and even to Europe, affecting more than just the Gulf's seafood supply. These seven species are the ones to watch:
In early May, Louisiana opened its shrimp season on schedule, according to Mother Jones, since the oil had only affected about 20 percent of shrimping waters.
The Gulf is also known for its population of blue crabs -- and Louisiana is the leader when it comes to catching them. The state accounted for more than 25 percent of the country's haul -- about 41.6 million pounds -- in 2008, according to Audubon magazine. Spring is spawning season for these crabs, and in the last few weeks scientists have discovered tiny oil drops on the crab larvae in the Gulf. While the larvae won't end up on your plate, they do provide nutrition for other organisms from Louisiana to Florida, as fish, birds, and mammals all prey on the blue crab.
The crabs are used as a measure of the health of the entire ecosystem. The Associated Press quoted biologist Harriet Perry, who works at the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory: "They are a keystone species. If we have a loss of blue crabs, we're looking at a loss of everything."
And the loss of these crabs could also impact menus around the world: Bill Finch says that when crab populations dwindle on other coasts, the Gulf pitches in (which means that Maryland crab cake might not always be as local as you think).
Even before the oil spill, populations of grouper were declining in the Atlantic and the Pacific due to overfishing; it's one of the most common catches in the region -- and a particular favorite of amateur fishermen -- leading to a two-month ban on catches of this fish that ran through February and March, according to the Herald Tribune.
Though commercial fishing activities were allowed to continue, the region's charter fishing industry (which brought in an estimated $2.2 billion in 2006) was restricted to give the grouper population time to recover -- but charter trips have also been a casualty of the oil spill, taking even more business away from the region.