Seafood Stinks in the Wake of the Gulf Oil Spill

Oily BeachesPhoto: U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 1st Class Luke Pinneo

The situation in the Gulf stinks, but for seafood lovers that may be a blessing in disguise. Fifty-six days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, the one thing that might be even more repugnant than the sight of oil washing ashore on the barrier islands and beaches of the Gulf Coast is the foul stench of that oil. However, the strong odor being reported by coastal residents is actually a useful tool for officials seeking quality assurances for the catches of fishermen.

In an attempt to analyze the safety of seafood taken from the Gulf of Mexico, inspectors are attempting to detect traces of oil in samples of fish and shrimp by using their noses. The Associated Press reported last week that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the International Food Protection Training Institute (IFPTI) have 55 assessors currently working to identify tainted seafood by means of sensory detection – using their trusty olfactory nerves, that is. LuAnn White, a toxicologist at Tulane University, describes the scent of oil as “having a gas smell to it”, which is clearly something you don’t want to detect on your dinner plate.

PrawnsPhoto: Rafael Ortega Díaz

This line of action is being taken at a fisheries lab in Pascagoula, Mississippi as part of a two-pronged study that also analyzes the samples chemically at NOAA’s lab in Seattle. The addition of the inspectors currently being trained will soon double the manpower behind the effort. While the technique of smelling for contamination is far from fail-safe, officials are categorizing it as a reasonable approach.

Seafood lovers wary of indulging their cravings for shrimp or blue crab taken from the region can at least find reassurance in the fact that most of the Gulf is still contaminant-free. Under NOAA’s regulations, 78,264 square miles of the Gulf’s waters are currently off-limits to fishermen. While incredibly large, the area accounts for only 32% of the federal waters in the Gulf, meaning that there are still plenty of sources of safe fish still open.

Map of Fishery Closure Boundary effective at 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time on June 7, 2010Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

With harvesting continuing to take place, precautions are necessary. So while the job of breathing in the stink of raw fish might not be an enviable one, it’s certainly important if it helps to allay the fears of consumers reluctant to purchase seafood from the area. After all, the livelihoods of approximately 17,000 commercial fishermen in the Gulf depend on it.

Smells like a rare breath of ingenuity in an otherwise dismal situation.

Shrimp, Snapper, Grouper, and Stone Crab Fishing Boats in Cortez, FloridaPhoto: Mr. William Folsom, NOAA, NMFS

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