We humans love eating fish. It’s something primal that goes back to the days when we fashioned spears out of sticks, and hooks from bones. Unfortunately, modern man has figured out a lot of ways to make fish inedible. And I’m not talking about Aunt Martha’s baked mullet recipe.
Chemical factories, oil spills, and industrial discharges have threatened the scaly animal that tastes so good on my grill and has so many health benefits. We fish eaters just have one question: Is it too much to ask to be able to eat fish and not worry about it?
I attended a meeting about 10 years ago when Florida officials were setting legal limits on dioxin, a highly toxic carcinogen. I thought zero was a good limit, but highly-paid, big-industry lawyers argued otherwise. The lawyers were winning. Then a funny thing happened. At the lunch break, a group of women served the committee members plates of fried mullet with two fillets. As the hungry group was about to chow down on the fish, they were told that one mullet fillet had come from the clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the other fish was caught in the Fenholloway River, Florida’s most polluted river where high levels of dioxin contaminated the fish. Problem was, the nice ladies told them, they weren’t sure which fillet was which.
Each member stared at the plate of food and one-by-one they slowly pushed it away. A few minutes later, the committee tabled the dioxin vote and sent out for sandwiches at Subway. The women, who all lived on the Fenholloway River and were forced to have bottled water shipped in, won a small victory that day. They weren’t trying to save the world; they just wanted to eat fish and not get sick.
The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico raised the same question. Is the fish safe to eat? A lot of people are worried and have simply stopped eating Gulf seafood. Those of us who live along the Gulf and have caught seafood all of our lives want answers. Despite the massive output of the oil spill, there is some good news and there are reasons to be optimistic about the health of Gulf seafood.
I must say at this point that this optimism in no way exonerates BP from the equation. Did BP screw up? Of course. Did they handle the situation well? Not really. However, placing blame isn’t the point of this article. I’ll leave that to the trial lawyers who are far better at placing blame than I. Rather, my quest is to answer the fundamental question of seafood safety.
With that said, I took my show on the road to Tallahassee for a tour of Florida’s high-tech, food testing laboratory. It’s called the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS) Food and Chemical Residue Laboratories. And they have been charged with testing Florida’s abundant seafood before and after the spill. To give you an idea of their capabilities, they are members of the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) which was formed to respond to national food emergencies and the threat of terrorism in foods. This involves U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It’s big time. When FERN began, only eight labs around the U.S. were selected. The folks at DACS are proud, and rightfully so, to be one of the original “elite eight” labs.
I’ll admit I was a little intimidated by the PhDs in lab coats, surrounded by many millions of dollars of testing equipment, high-tech computers, and basically a room full of people a lot smarter than I am. But I pressed on.
Before the oil spill occurred, DACS was cruising merrily along making sure everything from strawberries to steak was free from harmful contaminants that we’d rather not include in our dinner menu. They’ve been testing Florida’s food for several decades so they have it down to an, um, science. After the oil rig exploded in April 2010 and then continued to flow, seafood testing quickly vaulted to their number one priority.
“We really had to ramp up our efforts,” said Dr. Marion Aller, deputy commissioner at the Department of Agriculture. “This was a serious threat, not only to the fishing industry, but especially to the overall health of our citizens. We knew our workload was going to increase exponentially.”
Along the Gulf Coast, the paradigm shifted for everyone. Certainly the tourism industry went from taking reservations to fielding phone calls from people cancelling their vacations. From May through June, when the tourism graph usually rises, it petered out. Restaurants, bars, hotels, and the like saw their business tumble. The shift at the Department of Agriculture went from cruise control to pedal to the medal. They got to work collecting seafood samples and bringing them in for analysis.
From August until December, they collected more than 200 tissue samples from fish houses and processors. Most of the samples came from the Panhandle because of its close proximity to the well head. The variety of species was broad: shrimp, lobster, oysters, blue crabs, stone crabs, red snapper, yellow snapper, mutton snapper, grey snapper, mullet, flounder, king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, grouper, mahi-mahi, trigger fish, tuna, sheepshead, jack crevalle, sand perch, grunt fish, bluefish, and even the lowly ladyfish. In addition to the Panhandle, samples were retrieved from the Tampa area and all the way down to Miami and Key West. They even covered the East Coast with fish from Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral, even though it’s highly unlikely any oil reached that area.
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.” In layman’s terms, that means that these super brains working in a high-tech lab with millions of dollars of equipment didn’t pick up any sign of contamination.
“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.”
Of the 2,808 results, there were only two findings that registered a miniscule but at least quantifiable number – a flounder in Pensacola Bay and a sand perch in Tarpon Springs. The flounder had 0.0036 ppm of fluorine and the sand perch registered 0.028 ppm of fluoranthene. The LOC (level of concern) for both is 65.3ppm or 10,000-to-20,000 times greater than was detected.
As Dr. Aller and her team pointed out (and you’ll discover, if you Google it), the major concern with oil spills are PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and dispersants. If you go back and read up on the Exxon Valdez crash, you’ll see that researchers are still talking about PAHs. The dispersants got a tremendous amount of news coverage but ultimately the greatest worries are the PAHs.
“The dispersants are basically detergents, similar to laundry detergent. They break up the oil, and make it easier for the microbes to eat the oil. We have just obtained the method and will start to monitor them in our lab but we’re mostly concerned about PAHs.”
On the PAH front, DACS tested (and continues to test) for 13 types of PAHs: naphthalene, fluorine, phenanthrene, anthracene, fluoranthene, pyrene, bena(a)anthracene, benzo(b)fluoranthene, benzo(k)fluoranthene, benzo(a)pyrene, dibenz(a,h)anthracene, indeno(1,2,3-cd)pyrene, and xxxx. The fact that they have found nothing is outstanding news. However, it’s just not something you’ll find on the front page or the six o’clock news because it doesn’t involve death, maiming, airplane crashes, or a double-wide meth lab going up in a ball of flames. Those are the stories the media loves to shove down our throats. God forbid they sprinkle a little good news between the depressing and the horrifying.
Again, I must digress and recognize that some of my loyal followers are reading this and wondering why I’d infer that Gulf seafood is safe. I know it’s hard to believe that an oil spill of that magnitude has not destroyed everything in its path. It’s also against human nature to forgive a massive corporation for their colossal screw up. However, at some point we have to rely on the science rather than emotion. And as I dug deeper, the news seemed to get better.
Dissipation and Evaporation
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons are one of the most widespread organic pollutants on the planet because they’re present in everything from oil to wood smoke to burning coal, and even that stick of smoldering incense you had in your college dorm room (don’t try denying it). Some PAHs can be highly toxic and some are fairly benign. The oil from the Deepwater Horizon contained toxic PAHs that presented serious health risks to any life forms they came in contact with. Fortunately, PAHs in raw oil tend to dissipate, weaken, and evaporate fairly quickly so by the time tar balls were hitting Gulf beaches their toxicity levels were greatly diminished. This was accelerated greatly by the very warm Gulf water and steamy summer days that helped in the initial process of breaking down the PAHs.
The Probe of the Microbe
Another major factor working in the Gulf’s favor were super bugs called microbes that were eating the oil spill like an army of Pac-Men. It sounded a lot like science fiction but, in fact, it was just science. Oil-eating microbes have been around for eons consuming oil that seeps naturally from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. An article in OnEarth.org claimed that microbes eat the equivalent of two Exxon Valdez spills each year in the Gulf of Mexico. And that’s in a normal, non-spill year. Why do they eat oil? It’s their main source of food energy. Let’s just say it’s what spinach is to Popeye.
During the spill, when teams of scientist swooped in to investigate, they actually discovered new strands of cold-water, oil-eating microbes. It was previously believed that these critters only lived in warm water, but the truth is there’s a lot we don’t know about the science of microbes. Terry Hazen, head of the ecology department at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, makes bold claims about microbes. “There is no compound, man-made or natural, that microorganisms cannot degrade,” he said. Scientists have even found microbes that will turn hexavalent chromium – the toxic substance exposed in the movie Erin Brockovich – into chromium III, a benign form of the element.
In addition to raw oil, tar balls, and the rest, scientists also worried about enormous amounts of methane that billowed from the well. In June, Texas A&M oceanography professor John Kessler measured methane levels at 100,000 times higher than normal. Methane is bad, much worse than carbon dioxide, and scientists worry that methane could dramatically accelerate global warming. Kessler’s report caused the methane red flags to fly high. One blogger got a lot of press when a claimed methane gas would stay trapped in the Gulf like “a massive planetary fart.” I like the turn of phrase but so far no humongous Silent Suzie has escaped from the buns of the ocean. After the well was capped Kessler went back and found normal levels of methane. He was shocked. He also found large numbers of ocean bacteria called methanotrophs, another group of microbes that feast on methane. Kessler speculated that the microbes, which are usually present in small numbers, multiplied rapidly and disposed of the methane. It was just a theory because he didn’t witness the act. However, the methane was gone and the microbes were not.
With all of these microbes multiplying faster than a band of dessert rabbits, some experts wondered if the exploding microbe population would cause their own problems. Some feared, as the oil disappeared, that millions and millions of microbes would die and decay and deplete the oxygen levels in the Gulf leaving massive dead zones. It was another nightmare that, thus far, has not happened.
Perhaps one of the Gulf’s greatest assets is the Gulf Stream, the massive river of clear salt water that gushes non-stop north from the Caribbean. If you’ve ever sailed a ramshackle, 30-foot wooden sailboat by the name of Home Brew on a southern heading between Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula, you will discover as I did, that the water gushes through that 100-mile gap at four-to-six knots. The Home Brew was ugly but she was also very, very slow (the price was right) and we could barely scrape out five knots under full sail in a minor hurricane. The only way to end our six-day crossing from North Florida was to crank up the iron jib and power through the channel using both wind and internal combustion. It had been a long, hot ride and we were shooting for the nearest bar with cold beer on Isla Mujeras. After a 600-mile crossing, it took an excruciating 24 hours to go the final 50 miles. But I digress. The point is the Gulf is not a giant, stagnant mill pond. It’s replenished by the mighty gush of the Gulf Stream and it’s also gravity fed by the hundreds of rivers that branch out across North America. This flow of new water undoubtedly assisted in clearing the way to a cleaner Gulf.
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. In fact, there are numerous studies going on presently that will reveal more about the oil spill for many years to come. For example, scientists are studying the depths of the DeSoto Canyon in the northern Gulf to see if large amounts of oil deposits collected there. Studies on sharks, tuna, shellfish, shrimp, and more are on-going and there’s no doubt more and more data will be revealed. But are there reasons to be optimistic? Absolutely.
There are many people who will probably disagree with my optimistic view of the post-oil-spill Gulf. To them I say that I’m not discounting the horror of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I’m not saying that the oil spill wasn’t detrimental to the health and well-being of the Gulf. All I set out to do was answer one question: Are the fish safe to eat?
And for that answer, I’ll let you judge for yourself. But I will tell you this, I’m having Gulf red snapper for dinner tonight. Fire up the grill.
Postscript: It should be noted that this article focused on fish from Florida waters. All of the fish tested by DACS came from Florida. This article does not address seafood from the entire Gulf of Mexico or other state waters outside of Florida. In future issues, we will expand our quest to include more Gulf waters.