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The one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill came and went without much fanfare. The talking heads on TV mentioned it mostly out of obligation. The follow-up stories were sparse, because there was no significant breaking news to report. Tourism was on the rebound, oil sightings had evaporated, and no major catastrophes had developed.

In fact, from a tourism point of view, the spill had all but been forgotten. This year, Memorial Day weekend along Florida’s beaches gushed with tourists, and Mother Nature came through with three days of perfect weather.

As the 2011 summer season kicked off, restaurants reveled in one- hour waiting lists and hotel bookings surged, especially when compared to 2010’s rapid downturn. 

“We were overwhelmed last summer with calls from visitors cancelling their vacations,” said Alison Davenport, chairman of the Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce in Northwest Florida. Perdido Key was the first beach in Florida soiled by oil because it lies farthest to the northwest, all the way to the Alabama border.

“This summer has been the complete opposite. Rental properties are full, tourists are enjoying our beautiful beaches, and the area has come back strong.”

Along the blindingly white beaches from Panama City, Florida, to Gulf Shores, Alabama, where the oil spill caused economic havoc last year, summer vacation started with a bang. Roads were jammed with trucks and SUVs pulling boats packed with beach umbrellas and funky, inflatable sea animals. Ice machines were being picked clean, liquor stores jingled like casinos, and an endless stream of boat traffic created a constant flow of waves for jet skis to fly over. Oil spill, what oil spill?

Yet, even with a surge of optimism, questions remain about what is going on offshore and beneath the surface. Is all of that oil really gone or are there large deposits waiting to come ashore in the next big summer storm? (We don’t use the “H” word in Florida.) And, the big question: what is the status of the health of seafood?

Believe it or not, that is a pretty easy question to answer. Extensive testing by Florida’s Food and Chemical Residue Laboratories has detected no harmful contaminants in seafood from Florida waters. By all accounts, it appears that Florida’s seafood is as safe as it has ever been.Yet, across the nation, sales of seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, including Florida, are still way down.

It’s the old perception-is-reality scenario. It is hard for some people to believe that an oil spill of such magnitude wouldn’t create a massive swath of death and destruction.While there was serious damage to the ecosystem, the food fish such as red snapper, oysters, trout, and their cousins seem to be clean.

“For now it appears that Florida got lucky,” said Dr. Dean Grubbs of the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory.“Researchers at the University of North Florida analyzed fish samples we collected, looking for the presence of enzymes associated with breaking down polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and found no detectable levels at this point.That’s not to say that we won’t see something different after another year or two, but for now our results are promising.”

Grubbs has received grants from the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation and other organizations to study the effects of the spill on sea life. In the spring of 2011, he took his team to the DeSoto Canyon to see what they could find.

The DeSoto Canyon is a deep,V-shaped valley that cuts north into the continental shelf as close as 60 miles to Pensacola, and reaches depths of 3,000 feet. Fishermen call this area “the nipple” because it has a slight resemblance to a female breast. But the main attraction of the nipple is the upwelling of nutrient-rich water making this area a prime fishing target, specifically for billfish. It is also a place where the oil should have gathered. When you look at an underwater topographical map, the DeSoto Canyon seems tailor-made for catching oil. It’s deep, it’s close to the well head, and it’s, well…a canyon. But, so far, other than water, the canyon is dry.

“I fully expected all my equipment to come up covered in oil,” Grubbs said.“But we didn’t see any evidence of oil in the area and we were within 20 miles of the well head.”

In the previous issue of GHM, I reported on Florida’s high-tech, food-testing laboratory at the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS). DACS is a member of the elite Food Emergency Response Network (FERN), which was formed to respond to national food emergencies and the threat of terrorism in foods.This involves the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. DACS is also one of only eight labs in the U.S. that was selected for the original FERN program.

I was able to spend time with the scientists, tour the facility in Tallahassee, and review the results of their tests on shellfish, crustaceans, and finfish from Pensacola to Jacksonville.What they found, or didn’t find, were any polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at levels of concern in the fillets. PAHs are the primary contaminant in oil spills. However, DACS continues to test and continues to give Florida seafood a clean bill of health.

“Most of our tests registered in the less than detectable levels,” said Dr. Marion Aller, deputy commissioner at the Department of Agriculture.“If a significant amount of oil made it into the far eastern Gulf, it did not contaminate the seafood.”

In their report, they recorded 2,808 results for 13 different possible contaminants. More than 99% of the time the results are listed as “<LOD”, which means “less than Level of Detection.” “We measure in increments as small as ppb, or parts per billion,” Dr.Aller explained. “And we’re finding very little—and nothing anywhere near a level of concern.”

Scientists target PAHs first and foremost. That’s why there are a tremendous number of studies going on now (and that will go on for many years) looking for PAHs in everything from sharks to oysters.There is no way to predict what the future will bring, but the current data is encouraging. Of the more than 200 tissue samples taken from fish houses and processors around the state, including shrimp, lobster, oysters, blue crabs, stone crabs, red snapper, grouper, mahi-mahi, trigger fish, tuna, and others, the results have been the same—no PAHs and no dispersants anywhere near levels of concern.

If those are the results now, the hope is that this trend continues into the future.

One reason some scientists think we will see the trend of clean seafood continue into the future is that PAHs do not have a tendency to bioaccumulate up the food chain.This is mostly because fish have a very high metabolic rate, which doesn’t give PAHs time to settle in.As a fish gets bigger and eats lots of little fish that have also eaten lots of smaller fish, certain heavy metals like lead and mercury may bioaccumulate. But oil-spill PAHs are far less likely. So, as we look years down the road, it’s possible that PAHs from the oil spill may not show up later if they’re not finding them in the “here and now”

We can also thank the Gulf Stream’s continuous purging of the Gulf waters.This flow of clear, Caribbean water is constantly clearing the way to a cleaner Gulf and pushing any contaminants out of the Gulf basin.

Does all of this mean that the Gulf of Mexico is a pristine body of water? Not really. It had issues before the spill and it has problems still. But we can be hopeful that the seafood we love has not been contaminated.That, my friends, is the best news of all.

Where do we go from here?

BP has literally been pouring money into states that border the Gulf. But as one government official said, he hopes all that money creates some significant, long-lasting effects “rather than every waitress in the area getting a new big screen TV.” Hey, there’s nothing wrong with flat screens (and waitresses) but the coastal region needs fish hatcheries, aquaculture farms, and other ocean-related industries that create jobs and bring stability to the region.

The oil spill showed how delicate the environmental and economic balance in the Gulf region could be— from tourism to fishing, both recreational and commercial. However, as long as the resource is managed sustainably and the seafood is safe to eat, then demand for Gulf seafood will return.The question is, should BP use their resources to help build a growing aquaculture industry in Florida and along the Gulf Coast? Of course, they should.That, and new big screen TVs for the rest of us.

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