As of Nov. 1, 96% of relevant Gulf of Mexico waters became available for commercial and recreational fishing — up from 63% during the worst of the Gulf oil spill — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said. The agency based its decision on federal testing confirming the safety of Gulf-area seafood.
NOAA teamed up with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test 1,735 samples of several types of fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs endemic to the Gulf, and found 13 containing trace amounts of the chemical Corexit, a dispersant that was used to break up the oil.
“The overwhelming majority of the seafood tested shows no detectable residue, and not one of the samples shows a residue level that would be harmful for humans,” Margaret A. Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said in a statement. “There is no question Gulf seafood coming to market is safe from oil or dispersant residue.”
Dr. John Stein, director of NOAA’s seafood safety program, explained the details of testing to Reuters:
[Dr. Stein] said the chemical test is a back-up for so-called sensory testing in which trained experts sniff seafood for evidence of chemical contamination.
The chemical test looks for dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, or DOSS, one of the main compounds in the dispersants used to break up the spilled oil. “DOSS is also approved by FDA for use in various household products and over-the-counter medications at very low levels,” the agencies said.
Still, when the shrimp harvest began in mid-August, many fishery experts expressed skepticism about whether the testing methods used by federal agencies were enough. Douglas Rader, chief oceans scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Washington Post:
[Rader] said the government has not done enough tests to guarantee that open areas are free of oil. Even if tests came back clean, he said, currents could bring in oil or oiled creatures afterward.
“The problem is all the dispersed components of oil that are traveling independently through the complicated ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico,” Rader said. “It seems like a rush to judgment.”
Fishermen and shrimpers themselves still feel somewhat wary: although the loss of business because of the spill has been economically catastrophic for them, the impact of a single batch of tainted fish could be much worse.
For now, the fishermen of Louisiana can at least count on one high-profile customer: President Barack Obama served Gulf shrimp at his birthday party in August.
This post originally misstated that 37% of relevant Gulf of Mexico waters were open for commercial and recreational fishing during the worst of the Gulf oil spill. In fact, that figure refers to the percentage of waters that were closed. The text has been corrected.