Eco Etiquette: Is It Safe To Eat Gulf Seafood?

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

In the aftermath of the (hopefully stopped, but not cleaned up) Gulf oil spill, how do we know what seafood is safe to eat?


The dilemma of whether or not to eat seafood that could be tainted by the oil spill reminds me of how I felt about living in New York City in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Part of me wanted to show support for the city I loved by putting on a brave face and going about my daily life, but the other part of me valued my own well-being more: I wanted to get the hell out of there before the next attack. After all, what good is pride if you're not alive to show it?

With the seafood situation in the Gulf, I'm similarly torn: My heart goes out to workers who have now lost their livelihoods, especially in the shadow of an already struggling economy. I should, logically, concur with those encouraging us to "support our fishermen," whether it's President Obama chowing down on fried shrimp at a Mississippi restaurant, or Grist posting photos of oyster po-boys.

But quite frankly, I'm also concerned for my own health. True, NOAA and FDA have yet to find evidence of Gulf seafood contamination. I, however, am not sure I want to take their word for it. I recall too well the EPA's immediate assurances that the air was safe to breathe in lower Manhattan after the twin towers fell. Then NYC firefighters exposed to airborne debris in the aftermath began falling ill with sarcoidosis, an often fatal lung disease. Oops.

In fact, with the risk of sounding like a Tea Party proponent, the federal government has a history of telling us that things are safe that later turn out not to be. Like Vioxx. Or the toxic chemical BPA, which FDA originally ruled to be risk-free in food packaging before it reversed its stance early this year.

Now, from an environmental standpoint, I'm not so sure we should encourage people to gobble up marine life that was at risk even before the BP oil spill. We may be supporting fishermen, but what about the fish?

To find out if my fish fears have a legitimate foundation, I turned to Tim Fitzgerald, senior policy specialist with the Oceans Program at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Jennifer Grayson: So Tim, am I overreacting? I want to believe that Gulf seafood is safe to eat, but I also want to err on the side of caution.

Tim Fitzgerald: There are millions of people around the country who feel that way, myself included. When it comes down to it, this is an industry that's really getting slammed right now, and has been for a number of years, what with hurricanes and fuel prices and competition from imports. [We'd like to] support them in this time of need, but the information out there is not great.

JG: How so?

TF: The government has done a lot of testing, which is good; unfortunately, they haven't released most of those results. There have been press releases saying Gulf seafood is safe and all the tests have come back negative. But have they tested five red snapper, or 100? Two oysters or 500? I don't know, because they haven't posted the results yet. But I've been told they will be made public. [Note: A spokesperson from FDA confirmed this.]

JG: So based on the information you have, would you, personally, eat Gulf seafood?

TF: There are fish I would feel more comfortable eating right now than others. That's not an official EDF position, that's just me, personally, given my experience working with seafood.

JG: Fish such as?

TF: Generally, the red snapper and groupers coming from the Gulf are from a fishery that has vessel monitoring systems. So those boats are being tracked by the government. [Those fish] would be at the top of the list.

JG: Any at the bottom of the list?

TF: The ones that come to mind are in the closed areas and are not being harvested right now. That line of defense is hopefully keeping those most affected species out of the market.

JG: So what would happen if I ate contaminated seafood?

TF: I should say that so far, I haven't seen any reports of contaminated fish getting to market and being eaten by somebody who then got sick. Now that may change. But if tainted seafood gets into the food chain, there's a decent chance that you would actually smell it before you ate it, and that would keep you from eating it.

JG: Like the professional seafood sniffers we've been hearing so much about...

TF: Right, but we're not all trained sensory evaluators. There's always a possibility that you could eat a piece of [seafood] that did have oil residues, in which case the short-term health effect would be something like food poisoning: You would have gastrointestinal distress; you might throw up or get diarrhea.

JG: Fun. And the long-term effect?

TF: There is a cancer risk associated with exposure to PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons]. But generally when we talk about cancer risk in fish, it usually is the result of long-term and frequent exposure.

JG: So more likely the fishermen exposed to PAHs over the span of months would be more at risk than someone in Chicago who ate Gulf shrimp once or twice?

TF: Exactly. If you're only eating fish occasionally, which most Americans are, and you eat a variety of fish, and you don't eat only big predatory fish [which feed on other, potentially tainted species], the risks are still very low.

JG: And are you heeding that advice yourself?

TF: Yes. We don't get a ton of Gulf seafood here in DC. But personally, if there was a nice piece of red snapper in my market tomorrow and it was affordable, I would buy it. I wouldn't eat it every day, but that's true of any fish.

JG: Thanks, Tim. Wise words from a reel expert!