Seafood Safety: Lessons Learned From Exxon Valdez

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the scientific Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) issued a technical publication, Evaluating and Communicating Subsistence Seafood Safety in a Cross-Cultural Context: Lessons Learned from The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

Let’s look at how many of these “lessons learned” from the Exxon Valdez spill have actually been incorporated into the current response to the Gulf oil spill:

Lesson #1: The initial response should include a detailed sampling and analysis plan. The plan should include:

  • The types and numbers of samples needed;
  • Sample collection criteria;
  • Chain of custody procedures;
  • Quality assurance procedures;
  • Data time requirements, data reporting format, and extent of data interpretation;
  • Statistical power;
  • Criteria for selection of sample stations and collection.

Current situation: The full sampling plan that NOAA and FDA are using to collect seafood samples has still not been made public. The protocol that has been made public does not discuss how many samples are taken, where the samples are being taken, chain of custody procedures, quality assurance procedures, or statistical power.


Lesson #2: Create formal mechanisms for soliciting feedback and evaluating how many people are getting health-safety information and how many people found it adequate.

Current situation: This has not been implemented.


Lesson #3: Designate an existing agency with a clear mandate to address the questions of subsistence food safety and develop an adequate response to people’s concern and fears.

Current situation: NOAA, FDA, and EPA, have been working together on the risk assessment, but it has been unclear which agency has the ultimate responsibility and mandate over the risk assessment for seafood safety.


Lesson #4: Identify priority subsistence fishing areas and resources.

Current situation: This information has not been made public.


Lesson #5: If oil is observed during sampling, samples of oil or oil materials should be taken. 

Current situation: It is unclear from the seafood safety protocol if NOAA is taking samples of the oil.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill offered an important opportunity to learn how to protect subsistance or frequent fish consumers from health hazards. The SETAC recommendations are not difficult to implement, and these should form part of the basis for the FDA and NOAA response. Instead, it appears that the agencies have not learned history's lessons.