BLACK BAY, La. — David Morales set out in the pre-dawn blackness, when the marshes are quiet and the shrimp are busiest.
It was the first day of white shrimp season in Louisiana and Morales’ first day back shrimping in the four months since the Gulf of Mexico oil spill crisis began. He motored the Princess Taylor, a flat, 35-foot shrimping boat he built from scratch, through the dark marshes of Terre aux Boeufs, across Grassy Lake and into this broad salt bay.
There were things he knew — white shrimp are best caught at night and in the deeper channels of the bayou — and things he didn’t, such as whether his nets would pull up ribbons of oil.
Even if the shrimp are oil-free, Morales, a third-generation shrimper from St. Bernard Parish, was anxious about his ability to find anyone willing to buy his Gulf catch, he said.
“Right now, they’re testing and they say it’s good,” Morales said. “But I think we’re in for a long, hard road.”
The opening of white shrimp season last week marked a major milestone in the oil spill crisis that began April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and later sank, killing 11 crewmembers and unleashing the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Many of Louisiana’s fishing grounds were shut down as a precautionary measure, as more than 100 million gallons of crude escaped into the Gulf, battering marshes and washing up on beaches.
But even as fishermen such as Morales returned to fishing the bayous and lakes once shut down by oil, questions linger on just how safe Gulf seafood is and how stringent the testing procedure used to check it.
To what degree the oil — and the 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants used to break it up — will have a negative impact on Gulf seafood is under intense scrutiny. The answer could potentially leave a lasting scar on local economies and the livelihoods of fishermen such as Morales.
In an unusual joint effort, inspectors with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, along with state wildlife officials, have poked, sliced and sniffed hundreds of samples of Gulf fish and shrimp during the past months, looking for harmful traces of oil or dispersant. So far, only one sample out of 1,007 has shown any risky residue, according to NOAA figures.
The amount of testing and cooperation between federal and state agencies is unprecedented and a strong sign that Gulf seafood so far has not been marred by the oil, said Ralph Portier, an environmental sciences professor at Louisiana State University who has tracked the spill’s impact on seafood.
“This is probably the safest seafood entering the U.S. market right now,” he said.
‘It feels good to be shrimping’
Morales’ first drag of the day was right at daybreak. The nets brought up a shivering, silvery jumble of tiny sardines, young brim, catfish, blue crabs, ribbonfish and shrimp — no oil. He separated the shrimp from the fish and crabs and shoveled them over ice in large coolers. It was a light catch, Morales said, only 20 pounds. But it was early yet.
“It feels good to be shrimping again,” he said. “I grew up doing this. I don’t want to see it end.”
Morales, 47, was 13 when he first captained a shrimper, using skills taught by his father who learned from his father, all descendants of 18th-century settlers from the Canary Islands, known as isleños. As soon as he graduated from St. Bernard High School, he turned to fishing full time.
Hurricane Katrina pushed 6 feet of water into his home on Delacroix Island. He rebuilt on higher ground farther up the highway and returned to shrimping two months after the storm, he said. Shrimp prices were on the rise. He bought a $30,000 engine with last season’s profits.
Then the oil came. Unable to fish, he began working for BP, ferrying boom and anchors through the waterways of nearby Plaquemines Parish and watching the oil slowly march into the marshes.
Smaller spills have leaked into the bayous before and the seafood always survived, Morales said. What worries him are the long-term effects of underwater oil and dispersants on shrimp larvae.
Last week, researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts announced that a 21-mile plume of underwater oil was radiating from the capped well, posing further peril to Gulf seafood. Officials at BP, the oil company responsible for spill cleanup, recently agreed to fund a three-year, $13 million plan to study the oil’s impact on seafood.
“We have yet to see the full picture of hazards posed by this spill,” Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said Thursday at a House committee hearing about the safety of seafood from the oil spill waters. “The work done by FDA, NOAA and EPA will be critical in ensuring that fish and shellfish from the Gulf is safe to eat for years to come.”
Sniff, taste and chemical tests
The multiagency testing regimen involves the now-famous sniff test, as well as chemical testing.
A few weeks ago, state wildlife officials collected shrimp and finfish from the waters where Morales trawled and sent the samples to the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory in Pascagoula, Miss. A team of 14 “Expert Sensory Assessors” each day lower their specially trained noses into bowls of redfish, snapper and shrimp, straining to register a whiff of sweet crude oil.
They also taste the seafood and sniff for Corexit, the chemical used to break up the oil, said Steven Wilson, a NOAA supervisor at the lab. The chemical laboratories do not test for Corexit, however, leaving only the sniffers to detect the dispersant, he said.
The inspectors work eight-hour shifts, five days a week, Wilson said. The hours are strict to prevent “sensory fatigue,” he said. If an inspector works too long, “your nose gets tired and you don’t smell as much,” he said.
If the nose inspectors detect any oil or dispersant, the sample is immediately thrown out and that section of the Gulf remains closed, Wilson said.
If the sample smells clean, then it goes to regional laboratories for more detailed chemical testing, Wilson said. If it passes, the fishery is reopened. Of the 1,007 samples tested so far, only one has failed — a red snapper pulled from an area south of Orange Beach, Ala., in May, said Christine Patrick, a NOAA spokeswoman.
An additional 500 samples tested by state officials have showed no harmful levels of contamination. About 70% of state waters have reopened since the testing began.
After the sniff and taste tests in Pascagoula, seafood samples from federal waters are frozen in 8-ounce glass jars, packed in dry ice and sent overnight to a NOAA lab in Seattle near Portage Bay.
There, a $90,000 machine performs chemical tests for oil. The sensitive tests can detect up to one part per billion in the seafood, said Gina Ylitalo, the supervising research chemist in charge of the operation.
First, the seafood is ground up into fish mush using a kitchen hand blender. Next, the samples are dried, and the chemicals are extracted and cleaned up before being put in the desk-size testing machines for a 28-hour test run.
Of the 1,300 samples tested since a week after the spill began, not one has come back with levels above the FDA limits for any of the 13 petroleum signatures being tested. “The levels are very low, not even close,” Ylitalo said.
The fish have been taken from fishing and shrimping areas deemed safe to reopen, Ylitalo said.
Fish and shrimp metabolize hydrocarbons quickly, within days, so even if they had been exposed to oil at some point in their lifespan, when caught in clean water they would have had time to filter it from their bodies, she said.
“I would eat these fish and these shrimp in a heartbeat,” Ylitalo said.
Testing will continue for months to confirm that no tainted product is being caught. The lab is also working with the FDA to create a test for the dispersants used to break up the spill, which it hopes to have ready in a few weeks.
‘Research is demanded’
Critics of the testing regimen say more vigorous testing of Corexit should occur before fisheries reopen. Independent review of the testing procedures should also take place, said Aaron Viles of the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based environmental group.
“Independent science and research is demanded in a situation like this,” Viles said.
At the House committee hearing last week on the oil and seafood, Lisa Suatoni, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the government has not released specifics of their testing techniques and echoed Viles’ calls for more independent testing.
“Due to lack of public transparency, questions remain about the scientific basis by which states are making decisions on reopening fishing area,” Suatoni said.
For Morales, the proof is in the dripping nets he pulls from the bayous and bays he trawls.
Opening day was not perfect. Morales’ engine blew a valve, and he was forced to end his trip early when a storm crept in from the Gulf. He pulled in a total of 615 pounds of shrimp, barely enough to cover the cost of fuel and ice.
One good sign: no oil on the nets or shrimp, he said.
After mooring at his father’s dock in Delacroix Island, Morales offloaded 30 pounds of the shrimp he caught and carefully slid them into a large aluminum pot bubbling with boiling water, potatoes, turkey sausage and garlic in his brother’s backyard. It’s a Morales family tradition: a shrimp boil at the end of the first day of shrimp season. Wives, children, fathers-in-law and the occasional neighbor all gather to eat the first day’s catch.
“People are afraid to eat seafood right now, and I guess I can’t blame them,” Morales said. “Everybody’s gotta make up their own mind. I guess time will tell.”
He dumped a bucket of boiled shrimp on a picnic table, and the family sat down to eat.