Gulf “Seafood Safety” Update: Fisherman Pulls Up Sick, Visibly Oiled Crabs and “Black Goo” Off Florida Panhandle

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As many of you know, I continue to have serious concerns about the safety of the seafood coming out of the Gulf of Mexico. With enormous reluctance, I’ve ratcheted way back on the amount of Gulf seafood I consume, and have suggested others do the same. As a New Orleans native and admitted seafood junkie, it saddens me deeply (and not only for selfish reasons) to see our seafood industry – that was just getting over the ravages of Hurricane Katrina – laid low once again.

I know I’m not alone in experiencing acute withdrawal symptoms brought on by abstention from all things seafood. I’ve been reduced to dreaming of steamed blue crabs, platters of iced raw oysters, piping-hot seafood gumbo and jumbo shrimp po-boys – but when it comes to the issue of seafood safety, I’m one of those people who knows too much. Try as I might (you have no idea), I can’t ignore the pile of scientific evidence that reveals that many of our most coveted local delicacies are contaminated with oil and dispersant.

One of my clients, a Gulf crabber, sent me some disturbing photos yesterday (see below) that only add to my fears that seafood lovers like myself may be in for a long haul. My clients, whose name will be kept confidential, picked this visibly sick blue crab out of one of his traps at a depth of 15 feet on June 18 off the coast of Gulf Breeze on the Florida panhandle (Latitude: 30.22.102N; Longitude 87.12.534W). For those of you who know the area well, the location of the trap was roughly 6 miles from the pass in the center of Pensacola Bay.

Notice the pigmentation (or discoloration) problem on the crab and what appears to be an oil stain surrounding the right eye. The second photo shows a healthy Gulf blue crab. Compare the two.

My client attached a bailer to the bottom of the trap to take a sediment sample from the sea floor. He said the “black goo” (see photo below) that came up in the bailer sample looked and smelled like oil. Surprise, surprise.

We have sent the sediment sample to a lab in Massachusetts for testing. We will post those lab-certified test results, as well as the crab results, as soon as they’re available.


According to my client, visibly sick crabs (like the one above) are showing up in local traps with increasing regularity – most are covered almost entirely with a severe pigmentation affliction like the one above.

As for the “seafood safety” issue, you be the judge. Would you eat that crab? Or feed it to your son or daughter?

The appearance of these visibly sick crabs is coinciding – in time and general location – with another unusual mortality event. Take a look at this from a recent article in the Pensacola News Journal (PNJ), titled “All these dead sand dollars along shore just don’t add up”:

Thousands of sand dollars cover the beach from Fort Pickens gate area to at least a mile west. And they’re also directly across from Santa Rosa Sound from that area, on the south shore of Gulf Breeze.

The nickel- and quarter-sized sand dollars are all dead. They’re not white, rather they’re tinged green like a coin left in water.

The mass die-off is raising concerns about what killed or is killing the sand dollars and hundreds of sea stars mixed in with them.

The News Journal quotes 56-year-old Gulf Breeze resident Berta Hurston: “I’ve never seen anything like this. And I grew up in the area and I live on the water. It’s really disturbing to me.”

I agree with Berta, this is really disturbing. The sick crabs and the mass die-off of sand dollars in the same vicinity has renewed my concerns over seafood safety and the health of the Gulf in general.

As many of you know, my research staff has been testing seafood samples – from red snapper to blue crabs to royal red shrimp – since the early days of the oil spill. Their findings, backed by certified lab results, have for months on end flown in the face of the government’s “all clear” on seafood safety. My team, led by veteran toxicologist Dr. William Sawyer, has repeatedly found dangerous levels of toxic petroleum hydrocarbons in seafood samples taken from Pensacola to Grand Isle.

Some of my team’s key findings:

In September 2010, we sampled red snapper caught off the coast of Pensacola. The certified lab results show (see link to my previous post below) the viscera, or internal organs, to be contaminated with nearly 3,000 PPM of total petroleum hydrocarbons. That’s a dangerous level by any standard. Those high toxicity levels foreshadowed the “sick fish” epidemic now being reported off the Florida coast. NOAA has gotten such a glut of reports and sightings of red snapper with large lesions, the agency recently released guidelines for what fishermen should do when they come across sick fish (see link to “sick fish” post below).

Also in September 2010, my team sampled three sea nettles – a common food for bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf. The nettles, or jellyfish, were tested and found to be contaminated with 46.0 mg/kg of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, (PAHs). These are among the most contaminated samples of marine organisms our research team has sampled. PAHs found include alkylated naphthalenes, phenanthrenes, and benzo(a)pyrene. These are persistent toxic components of crude oil that can bioaccumulate and move up the food chain to contaminate predatory animals. And now, as most of you know, we are seeing record-breaking numbers of dead dolphins washing ashore along the Gulf Coast.

In October 2010, a commercial fishing boat captain sampled royal red shrimp from legal open Gulf waters. My team’s lab-certified test results showed the shrimp was contaminated with total petroleum hydrocarbons at 439 mg/Kg, (PPM), and 58 ug/Kg, (PPB), of naphthalene, a PAH. Additional shrimp samples from Pensacola, FL, had up to 6,520 mg/Kg, (PPM), petroleum hydrocarbons. Shrimp in commerce in Louisiana had up to 8,356 mg/Kg, (PPM), petroleum hydrocarbons, and 17 ug/Kg, (PPB), of PAHs. Those toxicity levels are unacceptable for shrimp entering the human food chain.

Even those of us who enjoy Gulf seafood to a fault must face the fallout from the impact of 200 million gallons of crude and 2 million gallons of toxic dispersant on the fragile marine ecosystem. And it seems that with the government’s “ignore it and hope it goes away” approach to the seafood-safety issue, we are left to rely on independent research and the reports from Gulf fishermen, like my client, to get a grip on whether the seafood is actually safe for human consumption.

Unfortunately, until I see some tangible evidence supporting an “all clear” on seafood safety, I’ll continue to long for the days when I can steam up a couple bushels of fresh Gulf crabs with friends and family, and get down to business.

Read about the “sick fish” epidemic off the Florida coast: http://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/wildlife/sick-fish-suggest-oil-spill-still-affecting-gulf/1164042

Read up on NOAA’s guidelines on how to handle sick fish here: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/gulf-update-sick-fish-human-risks-and-a-federal-agency-trying-to-keep-the-lid-on-a-crisis

The full PNJ article on the massive sand-dollar die-off is here: http://www.pnj.com/article/20110607/NEWS01/106070309/All-these-dead-sand-dollars-along-shore-just-don-t-add-up

Read my post on red snapper contamination (test results included) here: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/exclusive-test-results-red-snapper-sample-from-off-pensacola-shows-dangerously-high-levels-of-contamination-%E2%80%93-nearly-3000-ppm-of-total-petroleum-hydrocarbons

See my post on contaminated sea nettles here: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/gulf-sea-nettles-%E2%80%93-a-common-food-for-dolphins-%E2%80%93-showed-high-levels-of-crude-oil-contamination-in-december-2010-sampling

Test results on contaminated royal red shrimp are here: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/new-test-results-royal-red-shrimp-collected-by-commercial-fisherman-in-open-gulf-waters-contaminated-with-dangerous-levels-of-petroleum-hydrocarbons

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

6 comments

  • Thank you for this entry…. it’s so profoundly sad, but it needs to be told….
    I continually ask my local news WHY they aren’t reporting on the Gulf….. as if it has just gone away!! Insanity!

  • No one wants to give the government taxes to do anything. Then they back deregulation to cut what rules there are. Then they allow tax breaks to BP after they destroy the Gulf region, kill marine life, use dispersants outlawed in England & then stick taxpayers with millions. You either see Big Corporations as the greedy, self-serving, selfish monsters they are or suffer the loss of livelihoods, health and eventually the planet.

  • I AM VERY CONCERNED FOR ALL OF US IN THE SOUTHERN REGION OG GEORGIA WHO GO TO THE GULF AND EAT THE SEAFOOD NOW..BIT CONCERNED..I HAD RED SNAPPER ON MEMORIAL DAY, MAY 2011..IT SEEMED OK TO EAT FROM JOE’S CRAB SHACK??? THEN AGAIN, IT MAKES YOU WONDER..SOMEONE TAKE SAMPLES FROM THE GROUPER FROM PENSACOLA, DESTIN AND OF COURSE, PANAMA CITY..WOULD LIKE TO KNOW..THE YELLOW-EDGE GROUPER WE HAD ON MEMORIAL DAY WAS RIGHTEOUS AND GOOD..IT WAS SELLING FOR $20/LB. IT WAS 4 STARS****..LET US KNOW ANY RESULTS..THANKS..CONCERNED

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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