Public Health

Keeping Gulf Seafood Safe To Eat Poses A Big Challenge

yellowfin tuna on deck i i

hide captionNOAA is checking yellow fin tuna like this guy to make sure he's not contaminated with oil.

NOAA
yellowfin tuna on deck

NOAA is checking yellow fin tuna like this guy to make sure he's not contaminated with oil.

NOAA

President Obama declared seafood from the oil-soaked Gulf of Mexico safe yesterday,and even admitted to eating some for lunch.

But we wondered how he could be so sure.

So we called up Steve Murawski, the go-to-guy for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to see what the agency has been doing about seafood safety since the Horizon deepwater oil rig exploded April 20.

"When the well did explode, we knew pretty quickly there was going to be some sort of release, and the people in our laboratory in Pascagoula, Mississippi, understood.. the importance of getting some baseline samples," Murawski says into his crackling cellphone from an ecosystem advisors meeting in Annapolis.

(He's been to the Gulf twice in the last few weeks, and not for vacation.)

That means NOAA, and its fellow government agencies responsible for seafood like FDA and EPA, decided to quickly collect some samples of fish, oysters, and other ocean dwellers to determine how much oil was in them before they got contaminated, to help them set guidelines for safety.

They tested for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — or PAHs — which NPR's oil spill guru Richard Harris assures us are "pretty clear indicators" of oil contamination that accumulate in fish flesh.

Murawski says the PAHs were "actually quite low in a number of fish specicies, including a couple of specieis of shrimp, oysters ... which is a good thing."

Also in the early days, the agency convinced the states to closed some federally controlled 78,000 square miles of the Gulf thought to be contaminated — that's about 32 percent, Murawski says. The states closed more.

The basic plan is to enlist as many people as they can to continuously test fish in several areas — through simple smell tests and more sophisticated organic chemistry tests back in the lab.

Wait, sniff tests for seafood?

"Actually, the human nose is quite sensitive to oil," he says.

Certain big pelagic fish like yellow fin tuna and wahoo pose a great challenge to the operations, Murawski acknowledges, because they are migratory.

"What we want to try and do is assure the public that the seafood that is coming out of the gulf is both of high quality and wholesome," he says.

But he admits it won't be easy, especially since seafood poses so many bacterial safety challenges, even in the absence of this specific catastrophe.

"This spill is moving in many different directions... this one is hard to get your arms around," he says.

NOAA and its partners don't plan to reopen those areas until the fish there test clean. And there will probably be more closures in the near future as the oil continues to spread.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: