August 17, 2010

Gulf Shrimping Season Begins

The first shrimping season since BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill started on Monday, and Louisiana's commercial fishermen are now free to search a portion of the coastal waters for fish, shrimp and other catches.  However, concerns about the lingering effects of the massive oil leak remain.

Nearly three-quarters of the nation's wild shrimp come from the Gulf of Mexico. The region is also a major crab fishery and oyster ground.

Some of Louisiana's waters have been open for brown shrimping since the well ruptured on April 20, but the overall catch has been down from previous years due to the number of fishermen enlisted with BP's clean-up operations.  But the region's white shrimp, which are larger and sweeter than brown shrimp, are typically more desired by chefs.

One large shrimp wholesaler said that only a few boats had taken to the water on Monday, and the ones that did had found oil.

"We got four boats that went out -- out of 1,400 -- and I'm hearing they're finding oil," said Dean Blanchard, the largest shrimp wholesaler in the U.S., during an interview with the AFP news agency.

"They drag, they find oil, they throw the stuff back in, and they're looking for cleaner waters," he said, speaking from Grand Isle, Louisiana.

Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion Board, said the state's commission of wildlife and fisheries announced that the shrimping season would begin on schedule after several government agencies said most of Louisiana's fishing grounds were safe.

"NOAA, FDA, EPA -- all those groups have given us a clean bill of health as far as the waters that are open," Smith said.

"Nearly all [of Louisiana's] waters are open -- we're close to 90 percent open including part of Barataria Bay," he said.

However, more than 20 percent of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico remain closed due to concerns of oil contaminating the seafood.

"Uncertainty has ruled this whole shrimping season," Smith said.

"Our brand has been tarnished and we have a lot of work to do ahead of us."

Shrimpers are anxious about the prices their catch will yield, and question what the effects of the spill will be on the overall shrimp population, he said.

Although the leaking well was capped earlier this month, some experts have warned that the effects of the oil, and the dispersant used to break it up, could contaminate the area's seafood for years.

"Oil can release hydrogen sulfide gas and contains traces of heavy metals as well as nonvolatile polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that can contaminate the food chain," wrote Dr. Sarah Janssen and Dr. Gina Solomon in a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are potentially carcinogenic substances that can accumulate for years in shrimp, oysters and crab, they cautioned. 

PAHs are also found in other common foods, such as grilled meat, and at low levels in some seafood from other waters.

The federal government is conducting unprecedented safety testing, including grinding up fish, shrimp and other catches from the Gulf to search for tiny traces of oil.

"We're taking extraordinary steps to assure a high level of confidence in the seafood," said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), on Monday.

Some species clear oil contamination from their bodies faster than others. Fish, for instance, are the fastest, followed by shrimp.  Oysters and crabs are the slowest.

"I probably would put oysters at the top of the concern list and I don't think there's a close second," said marine scientist George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, during an interview with the Associated Press.

The federal government decides when it is safe to reopen fishing waters in a particular area by testing the seafood as soon as there are no visible signs of oil.  Inspectors begin by sniffing seafood samples for oil, and then conduct chemical testing at the FDA, NOAA or state laboratories. 

Before harvesting can be reopened, the samples, which contain multiple individual fish, shrimp, crab or oysters, must test below FDA-mandated "levels of concern" for 12 PAHs.  The figure is based on how much a person would have to consume to experience a potential health risk, and on the quantity of seafood a heavy consumer would likely eat in a month.

Well over 1,200 samples have been tested so far, with many more tests underway. 

Health regulators contend there's no evidence that the dispersant used to break up the oil builds up in seafood. Nevertheless, they are working to create a test for it just in case. 

It is still too soon to know whether skeptical consumers will be satisfied with such government reassurances.

Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University, said the spill had cast doubts on the safety of Gulf Coast seafood.

"You can pretend that people are going to rush to a restaurant to order Gulf shrimp right now," Brinkley told Reuters.

"Some people will, but a lot of people are worried about poisoning."


Image Caption: Shrimp lay on a sorting table after being pulled from the bay to be checked for signs of oil, August 14, 2010. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft spent the day seeing first hand if the shrimp in the bay were affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Mike Lutz.


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