As the monumental subsea engineering challenges of the BP oil spill finally subside, the challenges for the Gulf of Mexico seafood industry are only just beginning.
With portions of Louisiana waters already reopened to commercial fishing, marketing experts and seafood safety scientists from across the country on Sunday discussed the road ahead for re-establishing consumer confidence in Gulf seafood after a three-month barrage of images from the disaster.
State health officials and experts with the Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency discussed the system of fishing closures and seafood testing measures aimed at ensuring that no seafood that poses a public health risk could make it to the market.
“Seafood has never gotten this kind of attention anywhere in history,” said Walt Dickhoff, who oversees chemical testing for NOAA at the agency’s Seattle seafood testing lab. “So I’m quite confident it’s safe.”
Problem of perception
Of course, translating that message to the public is another matter, one that will likely take time, said panelists brought in as part of the Great American Seafood Cook-Off event at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, asked Kevin Adams, an Alaskan seafood industry representative, how long the industry faced problems after the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident.
“It only hit a very small portion of your coast. Did it affect all your other seafood besides the fisheries from that specific area?” Smith asked.
“Yes, the perception was it affected the whole state, it affected everything from the state, and it took 10-plus years to get out of that hole,” said Adams, the vice chairman of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and a salmon fisherman. “We put in a request directly to the oil companies to fund that effort. They gave us zero, absolutely nothing — so that was a reach into our pocket, and we went out to market and we did something about it.”
Ralph Brennan, who owns a slew of popular New Orleans restaurants, said he is worried that BP and the federal government will try to back off since the immediate crisis is over.
“We really need to have a system in place to monitor this for several years, to be sure that the seafood is going be safe in the long term, and then we need to market that,” Brennan said. “I think one of the things we ought to do is start with how much BP is spending now on their own PR campaign and ask them to match that for us, and it might be a good start.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal has already asked BP to fund a $173 million seafood marketing and testing plan, but the company has not yet made a decision.
Start with the science
Convincing the public that seafood from the Gulf is safe is first a matter of science, said Harlon Pearce, chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.
“At first we thought it was our job to let people know the seafood was safe and good to eat. But it’s not really my job, it’s their job,” he said, pointing to the various scientists and food safety officials from EPA, FDA and NOAA. “They need to stand up at least once a week together and sing the same song: that everything is safe here in Louisiana, everything is safe here that’s in the Gulf, everything is safe that you’re going get across the country.”
Seafood testing by the state and federal governments is done in two different stages: by testing seafood samples taken directly from impacted waters and by testing products at seafood docks or processing plants across the region.
Any fishing area affected by oil was closed to commercial fishing as a precautionary measure. In order to reopen an area to fishing, as was done a week ago with finfish and shrimp in state waters east of the Mississippi River, states must comply with FDA and NOAA reopening protocols requiring that seafood samples from each fishery be both smell tested by professional NOAA testers and chemically tested in one of the FDA’s labs.
The area has to be designated as free of heavy oil by federal and state agencies before testing can begin. So far, none of the thousands of samples done by NOAA and the FDA has come back negative for the presence of oil or dispersants.
FDA has also been criticized for not establishing a chemical test for dispersants in seafood, only a smell test. Robert Dickey, director of FDA’s Gulf Coast Seafood Lab in Dauphin Island, Ala., echoed what many high-level FDA scientists have said about dispersants: that they are water-soluble and do not accumulate in the tissues of fish or other seafood that humans would eat.
“We put so much work into making that determination, and we’re continuing to study it,” Dickey said. NOAA and the EPA are also doing studies on dispersants and their toxicity and ability to concentrate, or bioaccumulate, in different species.
Janet Wodka, a senior policy advisor with the EPA, also said the agency will continually monitor the bottom of the Gulf and marshes after storms to determine whether oil has shifted around.
“What we have found so far is there is nothing showing up that is outside of the realm of normal,” she said.
With the well capped and more fisheries being reopened, one of the most pressing questions is how the industry should market itself now that the immediate crisis has passed. Julie Decker of the National Seafood Marketing Coalition said communicating the science is the first step.
“The spill has been stopped. People can breathe; they can start to think,” Decker said. “And what we’ve heard here today that Gulf seafood is being tested more today than it ever has been. That’s the beginning place, that’s where you start to say, ‘Our seafood is safe, our seafood is tested more now than ever.’ And it just begins to open the door.”
Monty Berg, who works in NOAA’s seafood inspection program, suggested the oil spill might actually be a new beginning for seafood from the Gulf, if the messaging is right.
“There are untold numbers of Americans who have never eaten Gulf seafood,” Berg said. “Let’s get the word out to them that the products are not only safe but that they’re high quality and let’s ask them to buy a pound and try them. If you buy a pound of Gulf seafood there’s probably a pretty good chance you’re going buy another pound.”