From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published July 1, 2010 10:24 AM

Ensuring Seafood Safety in the Gulf of Mexico

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is having a devastating impact on marine wildlife. Fishery stocks are off limits in the affected areas. However, there are still large portions of the Gulf which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has kept open to fishing activities. To ensure the safety of the seafood caught in these areas, federal and state agencies have joined together to implement a comprehensive and coordinated safety program.

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Let’s say you went to a local restaurant last week and order popcorn shrimp for an appetizer. Or perhaps, you went to a hibachi restaurant and order the hibachi shrimp dinner. At the time, you may be not concerned with safety, only that you love shrimp. You might later realize that this shrimp in all likelihood came from the Gulf of Mexico. It has been over two months since the oil spill began, and this batch of shrimp could have been caught from contaminated waters. How is it that seafood from the Gulf is still reaching your dinner plate?

There are several federal agencies working on ensuring food safety in the gulf region: NOAA, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They have teamed with state health officers from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas to implement a joint protocol for sampling and reopening that would apply to both state and federal waters.

They will establish this program to make sure that Gulf of Mexico seafood is safe for the consumers, and to allow fishermen to be able to confidently sell their products.

It is a joint effort because of the monumental size of the task. "No single agency could adequately ensure the safety of seafood coming from the Gulf following this tragedy, but in working together, we can be sure that tainted waters are closed as appropriate, contaminated seafood is not allowed to make it to market, and that closed waters can be reopened to fishing as soon as is safe," said Eric Schwaab, NOAA assistant administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service.

Oil contamination will slowly start to abate as the well is plugged, skimming activities continue, and the oil disperses throughout the rest of the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean. As this happens, these government agencies will coordinate their efforts to reopen previously closed fisheries. Whether or not the availability of marine life will be there is another question altogether. Currently, NOAA and Louisiana officials are using the protocol to consider reopening two closed areas off the Louisiana and Florida coasts.

NOAA together with the FDA are monitoring fish caught just outside the currently closed areas and analyzing them for oil contamination. At this point, fish flesh analyzed from these areas have tested well below the level of concern for oil contamination.

In a press release from June 29, NOAA stated that "The first and most important preventive step in protecting the public from potentially contaminated seafood is to close fishing and shellfish harvesting areas in the Gulf that have been or are likely to be exposed to oil from the spill." As long as they stick to their word and do a good job, you will be ok from those questionable meals you had last week. In fact, it might even be a good idea to grill up some shrimp for the Fourth of July. Good old petroleum-free shrimp, made in the USA!

For more information: NOAA Fisheries Service — Southeast Regional Office

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