This article was originally published in the August 2, 2010 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper
The Gulf fish you ate recently may have tasted fine but you might have wondered if it was tested for the dispersant COREXIT -- used by BP to break oil into smaller pieces. Seafood inspections since the spill have been mostly sniff tests for oil. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, however, says a new dispersants test for seafood is in the works and should be ready soon.
Fish in local markets was termed safe to eat by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in mid-July. But since then, digging into a plate of shrimp or snapper has required a leap of faith by Louisiana residents aware of the spill's many contaminants.
Meanwhile, the government has stepped up efforts to sample and inspect seafood in the last two months. "Federal agents have been to my plant three or four times in six weeks and collected random samples, weighing about two pounds each time, of crab and shrimp," said Gary Bauer, owner of processors Pontchartrain Blue Crab Inc. in Slidell. "They paid me my selling price for them." Agents arrived unannounced and took the samples for lab testing.
Bauer's samples probably ended up at NOAA's National Seafood Inspection Lab in Pascagoula, where they were likely sniff tested and may have been chemically tested. NOAA's seafood monitoring, done with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, relies on closing and reopening fishing areas and sampling seafood. For a closed area to reopen, seafood samples must pass muster at NOAA's labs.
"Since the spill, seafood samples have been tested for the last six to eight weeks at the Pascagoula lab," said Meghan Scott, FDA spokeswoman. "Sensory testing looks for the mixture of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs and dispersants. Chemical testing is done for PAHs." Government agents continue to send samples from across the Gulf to Pascagoula, she said.
"FDA has inspected more than 300 primary processors in the Gulf region to ensure that they have proper preventive measures in place," Scott noted. Based on inspections, "local seafood is safe to eat."
NOAA, meanwhile, says its test for dispersants is being developed as a precaution. NOAA's sensory experts are trained to detect a combination of dispersant and oil in seafood, said Scott Smullen, NOAA spokesman. "But out of an abundance of caution, NOAA is also developing a chemical test to detect COREXIT in marine species in the Gulf, and the test can be applied elsewhere if needed."
He continued "it's important to note this is precautionary research because we do not expect to find the components of COREXIT in fish. Dispersants have a low potential to bioconcentrate in fish." NOAA's test for dispersants will be introduced soon, and applied to Gulf seafood in the agency's Seattle lab, he said. In addition to Pascagoula and Seattle, NOAA tests fish for chemicals in Davis, California and other locations.
Smullen said dispersants quickly dilute in water. "With time and distance from the point of application, concentrations in water become quite low" and the potential for significant concentrations to be found in fish tissues is small. But he said research is underway to better understand interactions between COREXIT and oil and their effects on fish.
In late June, Paul Anastas, an assistant administrator at EPA, said internal modeling showed "dispersant constituents are expected to biodegrade in weeks to months, rather than remaining in the ecosystem for years as oil might."
And at Nalco, the Illinois-based manufacturer of COREXIT, spokesman Charles Pajor pointed to a 1994 French research-institute finding that "COREXIT 9500 largely biodegraded in 28 days."
Ashley Roth, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, said, "we sat down with the EPA a few weeks ago, when they announced their findings for testing they had done with dispersants and seafood. According to EPA, they were very pleased with their findings." Roth said recent, extensive testing by state and federal agencies-the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries, the state Dept. of Health and Hospitals, EPA, NOAA and FDA-has helped make consumers confident about seafood safety.
Local chefs too have expressed faith in the local catch. Andrea Apuzzo, chef-owner of Andrea's Restaurant in Metairie, said "I believe local seafood supplies are safer than ever right now. I wouldn't serve fish to my customers if I wasn't absolutely certain about its safety." He added "I continue to eat fish every day."
On July 22, after consulting with FDA, NOAA re-opened a third of the closed Gulf fishing area or 26,388 square miles, to commercial and recreational fishing. Before that, NOAA had collected samples in the area of grouper, snapper, tuna, mahi mahi and other fish from June 23 to July 5. In a July 22 press briefing, Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator, said the agency's sensory testing for oil products and dispersants allows the agency "to detect extraordinarily minute parts per million of compounds." And she said "all the samples came up completely clean" for areas that have since been reopened. NOAA, she added, is very confident that seafood from open areas are completely safe to eat. Meanwhile, sampling continues along the Gulf, including sites like dock sides and markets, she said.
Many questions remain, however. Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission Secretary Robert Barham sounded alarm bells on June 3 at a commission meeting. He said the use of sub-sea dispersants complicates the state's efforts to keep fishery products safe. After the spill, his agency was the first to object to dispersant use based on their unknown properties, but he said the state's Dept. of Health and Hospitals has since raised objections. Barham said a post-spill study on the local food chain, including shrimp, crabs, oysters and fisheries will be done, but it may be years before the impact of dispersants on the chain is understood. And he pointed to the need to obtain COREXIT's ingredients and to ensure safety by doing fish-tissue analysis.
In late May, Nalco provided the government with COREXIT's components, and on June 9 NALCO posted them on its website.
Scientists say much much more work on dispersants and seafood is required. Susan Shaw, marine toxicologist and director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Maine, said dispersants are less toxic than oil. "But because COREXIT contains a petroleum solvent, we're putting petroleum solvent on top of a petroleum spill. So it's increasing hydrocarbons in the water column." Dispersants can work like a delivery system, adding to the toxicity of oil for marine organisms, Shaw said. "Dispersed oil enters the body more readily than oil, and it goes into the organs faster."
A July 21 statement by Shaw and six other marine and ocean scientists opposed to dispersant use in the Gulf, said "as plumes of dispersed oil form in the water column, globules of oil and dispersant envelop and kill floating plankton, fish eggs and larvae and everything else at sensitive-life stages." In addition to Shaw, the authors of that statement are Dr. Sylvia Earle, ocean explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society; Dr. Carl Safina, president of Blue Ocean Institute; Dr. David Gallo, oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Dr. David Guggenheim, marine biologist and conservationist; Dr. Edith Widder, president of Ocean Research & Conservation Association; and Dr. Wallace Nichols of the California Academy of Sciences.
Herring and whale sharks indiscriminately feed on those globules, the scientists said. In oiled areas like Louisiana's Barataria Bay, bottom-feeders have been decimated. They said big fish like amber jacks, tuna and grouper and marine mammals are exposed to oil and dispersants by feeding on contaminated fish. Skin contact with COREXIT and oil can cause ulcers and burns to eye and mouth membranes, they noted.
The statement from the seven scientists also said "dispersed oil can enter the marine food chain at many points, and can bioaccumulate in animal tissue, potentially impacting marine ecosystems over many years and over a broad geographical area." They said that despite their urgent, post-spill warnings that oil suspended in the water column was probably killing swaths of sea life, NOAA was slow to send research vessels to investigate. Little of NOAA's "Natural Resources Damage Assessment" data since the spill has been released to researchers, the scientists said. However, raw data is being immediately turned over to the Joint Incident Command and thus to BP. The seven scientists urged federal agencies to release full toxicity data, not just summaries, on dispersants on a government website.
Meanwhile, to find out what's happening in the deep seas, the 170-foot NOAA Ship Oregon II left its Pascagoula home port last week to collect fish and shrimp samples off Louisiana's coast. NOAA ship Nancy Foster continued to monitor deep, marine habitats exposed to dispersants.
Because of dispersant use and oil-skimming by boats, officials last week wondered where all the gushed oil was following the capping of BP's well. Last week, Lubchenco said NOAA is doing "a very careful analysis to better understand where the oil has gone and where the remaining impacts are most likely to occur."