Aug 2, 2010 9:09 PM by Alison Haynes
VENICE, La. (AP) - Seafood from some parts of the oil-fouled
Gulf of Mexico has been declared safe to eat by the government,
based in part on human smell tests. But even some Gulf fishermen
are questioning whether the fish and shrimp are OK to feed to their
Some are turning up their noses at the smell tests - in which
inspectors sniff seafood for chemical odors - and are demanding
more thorough testing to reassure the buying public about the
effects of the oil and the dispersants used to fight the slick.
"If I put fish in a barrel of water and poured oil and Dove
detergent over that, and mixed it up, would you eat that fish?"
asked Rusty Graybill, an oysterman and shrimp and crab fisherman
from Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish. "I wouldn't feed it to you or
my family. I'm afraid someone's going to get sick."
Now that a temporary cap has kept oil from spewing out of BP's
blown-out well for more than two weeks, state-controlled fishing
areas in Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi have slowly begun to
Despite splotches of chocolate-colored crude that wash up almost
daily on protective boom and in marshes east of the Mississippi
River, Louisiana has reopened those waters to fishing for such
finfish varieties as redfish, mullet and speckled trout, and will
allow shrimping when the season begins in two weeks. Oysters and
blue crabs, which retain contaminants longer, are still off-limits.
Smell tests on dozens of specimens from the area revealed barely
detectable traces of toxic substances, the Food and Drug
Administration said. The state of Louisiana has also been testing
fish tissue for oil since May and has not found it in amounts
In Mississippi on Monday, FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg
said the government is "confident all appropriate steps have been
taken to ensure that seafood harvested from the waters being opened
today is safe and that Gulf seafood lovers everywhere can be
confident eating and enjoying the fish and shrimp that will be
coming out of this area."
Similarly, BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said Sunday
that authorities "wouldn't open these waters ... if it wasn't safe
to eat the fish." He said he would eat Gulf seafood and "serve it
to my family."
Experts say smell tests may sound silly but are a proven
technique that saves time and money. Moreover, they are the only
way to check fish for chemical dispersants, though FDA spokeswoman
Meghan Scott said government scientists are developing a tissue
test. It is not clear when it will be ready.
Federal scientists say that unlike mercury, which accumulates in
some fish, the most common cancer-causing compounds in oil are
quickly metabolized and eliminated in the bodies of finfish and
The FDA has declined repeated requests to provide information
about the toxic substances that were found, but the agency is
mostly looking for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which
have been linked to cancer. The compound is found in many foods,
such as corn oil, kale and smoked meats. Scientists studying the
1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska found that the villagers' own
smoked fish contained levels of the contaminant hundreds of times
higher than those found in the shellfish tainted by the oil spill.
As for the dispersants, the Environmental Protection Agency said
the ones used in the Gulf have low toxicity in humans, meaning the
public health risk is low.
Ralph Portier, an aquatic toxicologist at Louisiana State
University, said that all the data and testing he has reviewed so
far show that seafood caught in the recently reopened areas of the
Gulf is safe, and he would feel comfortable eating it. President
Barack Obama ate Gulf seafood when he visited Mississippi a few
"The major theme here should be that we have no indication that
there's a problem. We have not seen dispersant or the telltale
signs of oil in finfish and shrimp," Portier said.
But his colleague Kevin Kleinow, a professor of aquatic
toxicology, said he is laying off Gulf seafood until the government
releases more specifics about the testing it conducted, including
exactly what species are being monitored and what levels of toxic
substances are being found.
He said he is also concerned that a smell test won't sniff out
dispersants. "Some of them - we've done work on a number of
surfactants that are used in dispersants - have very little odor,"
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called on BP on Monday to fund a
20-year testing and certification program to restore confidence in
seafood from the Gulf, which accounts for a majority of the
domestic shrimp and oysters eaten by Americans and about 2 percent
of overall U.S. seafood consumption.
"This will be the most monitored, studied seafood you will get
anywhere in the world," Jindal said. He provided few specifics and
did not say how much such a program would cost. BP did not
immediately return a call for comment.
Dawn Nunez, whose family operates a shrimp wholesale business in
Louisiana, said he finds it absurd that the government is reopening
the fishing grounds when so many doubts linger.
"It's nothing but a PR move," she said. "It's going to take
years to know what damage they've done. It's just killed us all."
Not everyone is concerned.
Andrew Hunt, a real estate agent who lives in Meraux, La.,
motored his small recreational fishing boat out to the newly opened
area of marsh and reeled in a foot-long speckled trout.
"We'll go and have us a nice little fish fry," he said.