Is Gulf of Mexico seafood safe to eat?

by Catherine Schmitt

During my trip to the Gulf Coast, I ate a catfish po’boy from Parkway Bakery, oysters Rockefeller, garlic shrimp washed down by Abita ale, pan-fried black drum at Jacques-Imo’s, fried shrimp at the legendary Florabama road house, and a melt-in-your-mouth tapas of red snapper from the Global Grill in Pensacola—all of it sourced fresh from the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe I was just hungry, or maybe eating local food was my way of showing solidarity with my Gulf Coast colleagues. Either way, I devoured the seafood that so many people have been afraid to eat, mostly because they’ve been severely misinformed.

After the magnitude of the oil disaster became realized, mass media reporting emphasized the impact on the seafood industry and related tourism, and seafood consumers became skittish. According to my friends at Louisiana Sea Grant, rather than posting signs indicating that they proudly serve Louisiana seafood, restaurants were posting signs stating that they were not serving Louisiana seafood. Negative media attention was perpetuating this misconception. Just a week before I left for New Orleans, a colleague asked me if it was okay to eat Gulf shrimp, that she’d been avoiding it. I assured her the seafood was safe.

After the disaster, waters were closed to fishing as a precautionary measure, based on the location and movement of the oil (not because seafood was necessarily contaminated); 23,000 square miles of Gulf waters remain closed. Samples of seafood—from closed areas and every load landed by fishing vessels—are tested using sensory analysis. However, efforts to counter the fears of Gulf of Mexico seafood fell short, as this sensory analysis or “sniff test”—which is only one step in a process for testing seafood safety—received all the attention. A young woman in a white lab coat lifting a glass dome to sniff a piece of raw shrimp makes good television, and good comedy, as demonstrated by Stephen Colbert.

It is hard to believe that this is how our food is monitored—but after just one day of training, a human can smell oil at concentrations of just 10 parts per million. Sensory testing is followed by laboratory analysis. In fact, there is more seafood inspection and testing happening than ever.

“We need to work together more aggressively with NOAA and BP to come up with a message that all the seafood is being tested,” Kris Van Orsdel of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Unit said in September. “We need marketing dollars, and a national seafood marketing coalition with dedicated resources for disaster areas. This is an opportunity as a region to come together on the seafood issue.”

Van Orsdel sees the reality of the US seafood industry, which got lost as news correspondents frequently cited a statistic that 40% of the seafood in the United States comes from the Gulf Coast (according to the latest statistics from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Gulf Coast landings represent about 15% of US total commercial landings by weight in 2008-2009).

What was not said was that the US imports more seafood than it produces—80% of the seafood Americans eat comes from other countries, mostly in Asia. So the percentage from the Gulf Coast is really just a fraction of the 20% of seafood consumed that originated in American waters.

Fishing is important to the region—second only to the oil and gas industry in Louisiana—but the Gulf’s fishing economy has been in decline for more than a decade, since cheaper imports flooded markets (US seafood imports in 2009 were 5.2 billion pounds; US exports of edible fishery products were 2.5 billion). Then, after several hurricanes including Katrina and Rita, Ike and Gustav, many fishermen lost their boats and some quit fishing completely to work for the oil companies. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ 2005 preliminary estimates of losses to the state’s seafood industry as a result of Hurricane Katrina were $1.3 billion. Wasn’t the iconic Louisiana shrimp fisherman so beloved by TV film crews fast on his way to becoming endangered well before the oil disaster?

The Louisiana fishermen, seafood processors, and food retailers worry they may never recover their industry or their image. The state’s request for $450 million from BP for seafood safety and inspection programs for 20 years was scaled back to $150 million.

What can you do to help? Eat! Eat seafood from the Gulf, and from fishermen and aquaculturists in your community.