PASCAGOULA - Miss. - All along the Gulf Coast, seafood is big business. Commercial fishermen, sports fishermen, restaurants, marinas and seafood distributors all depend on the waters of the Gulf to support themselves and their families. But since last April, the safety of their product has been called into question. People around the country have been wondering - "is it safe? Have the fish been tainted by the oil that gushed from the Deepwater Horizon well for months last summer?"
Just last week Alabama unveiled a new marketing campaign, called "Serve the Gulf." It's message: learn the truth about gulf seafood. It's motto: support the waters that support Alabama. The radio, print, TV, and online ads are the latest attempt to salvage the image of an industry that's vital to the coastal economy. In the end, it all comes down to perception.
To help dispel some of the rumors about seafood safety, NOAA invited the media into their seafood safety lab in Pascagoula, MS in advance of the one year anniversary of the rig explosion. We walked in, unsure of what to expect. Sometimes you go on media tours and you end up sitting in a room looking at slides and maybe getting one or two camera shots through glass to the lab on the other side.
Not this time. We got the full tour of the lab and the work that was being conducted there. We were allowed to chat with workers who had spent months examining the safety of seafood from the affected region. And we were allowed to ask any of the dozen experts present any question that came into our heads. Here's what we learned:
As the oil dissipated, evaporated, was burned or skimmed, NOAA would go out again and take samples of fish to see if that grid was safe to reopen. In order to reopen a grid, there had to be no oil present for at least a week and the samples had to pass both chemical and sensory analysis - twice. Once a grid was reopened, NOAA continued sampling to make sure that the fish had not been contaminated by some unseen pocket of crude. That sampling continues to this day even though only one 30x30 grid remains closed - the one that houses the now-sealed well head.
In the past year, NOAA has examined about 5,000 samples - and since each sampling requires a pound of fish, it's estimated those samples actually accounted for about 10,000 fish. So, what does analysis entail? And what did they find?
One of the tests the fish have to go through is chemical analysis. The specimens are brought in wrapped in aluminum foil with details of where and when they were caught. Lab technicians then cut up the fish and put it into jars for analysis. Two labs handle all the traffic on chemical test - the one in Pascagoula which was set up in response to the spill and its predecessor, the agency's main lab in Seattle, Wash. In both these labs, the fish are tested for hydrocarbons. The Seattle lab also tests for dispersants. Just to be clear - only fish caught in federal water are brought to the NOAA labs. Those caught in state waters go through the exact same set of tests - only they're carried out by the FDA.
Sensory analysis, on the other hand, is only done at the NOAA labs regardless of where the fish are caught. Here the fish undergo smell and taste tests. These sensory analysts, as they're called, are trained by NOAA in decomposition and we were told each of them has at least 7 years experience doing this kind of work. Analysts have also been trained to detect oil - down to one part per million. This is done by giving very concentrated samples and gradually reducing the concentration until only a trace remains.
In order to reopen a grid, the fish had to be approved by seven analysts who each tested the fish three times for a total of 21 tests. The fish are sampled both raw and cooked. If three of the analysts fail the fish, that grid would not reopen. In the past year only two fish have failed - a red snapper and, ironically, an oil fish. Once those fish failed the tests, that grid remained closed until tests came back showing no problems.
NOAA doesn't take any chances on cheating either. Analysts get no clues about the origin of the samples, blinders are put up around each station to discourage visual clues between the analysts and no talking is allowed in the room until all the fish have been rated and paperwork has been turned in to a proctor.
So, what did they find? NOAA Director Eric Schwaab says he is not aware of even one piece of tainted seafood making it into the marketplace. Steve Wilson, the chief quality officer over all the sensory testing, says there have no statistical increases in the amount of tests failed since the oil spill. And Dr. Walt Dickhoff, a scientist from NOAA's Seattle laboratory, says this is the most examined fish in history. More than 80 percent of the seafood eaten in America is imported from other countries - and none of that fish is held to the standards that fish in the Gulf have been subject to for the past year.
Is it safe enough to eat? Who knows for sure? Perhaps only time will tell. All I can say is, even before all the NOAA scientists told me it was safe, I was eating seafood from Pensacola, Fla., to Grand Isle, La. In fact, I ate it all through the months I spent on the Gulf Coast covering the oil spill disaster last summer. Some of it, I even caught myself in Grand Isle, La., with one of our boat captains. I'm still here and I'm still healthy.
One thing gave me the confidence to do that. The fishing industry in the Gulf lives and dies by its reputation. I knew that nobody would give me food they wouldn't feed their own families - and that was proof enough for me.