Gulf Update: Sick Fish, Human Risks and a Federal Agency Trying to Keep the Lid on a Crisis


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has confirmed – for the first time since the BP disaster – that fish are sick in the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, the number of “sick fish” sightings has risen so dramatically, primarily in federal waters off Alabama, and the risks to humans are becoming such a serious concern that NOAA has released guidelines on what anglers should do when they come across visibly sick fish, including a “minimal to no handling” warning.

Many of the reports describe large lesions on the fish, particularly red snapper. And with the June 1 opening of recreational red snapper season, the reports of sick fish are bound to keep rolling in and the risk of human exposure will grow exponentially.

Some experts, including many with whom I work, suspect the BP oil spill is connected to the spike. Not much of a surprise there. We’ve been seeing an undeniable trend toward “unexplained” occurrences of sick, stranded and dead marine life – like record numbers of dead dolphins and sea turtles – for months now. The prime suspect, of course, is the 200 million gallons of crude and the 2 million gallons of the toxic dispersant Corexit that continue to foul the Gulf of Mexico.

From a May 25 article in the Pensacola News Journal (PNJ):

The reports of sick fish correlate with areas most impacted by the BP oil spill, said Jim Cowan Jr., the Louisiana State University Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences scientist who is at the center of the sick fish studies off the Alabama coast.

The “sick fish” sightings first raised eyebrows nearly two months ago. An April 17 article in the St. Petersburg Times describes the severity of the deformities:

The fish had dark lesions on their skin, some the size of a 50-cent piece. On some of them, the lesions had eaten a hole straight through to the muscle tissue. Many had fins that were rotting away and discolored or even striped skin. Inside, they had enlarged livers, gallbladders, and bile ducts.

The St. Pete Times quoted Professor Cowan as saying: “The fish have a bacterial infection and a parasite infection that’s consistent with a compromised immune system. There’s no doubt it’s associated with a chronic exposure to a toxin.” Hmmmm, I wonder what that could be? Any ideas?

In September 2010, my research team sampled red snapper caught off the coast of Pensacola – and the results are very much in line with the “sick fish” epidemic we’re seeing now. 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.

Although NOAA is sticking by its claim that Gulf seafood is safe to eat (see link to HuffPo article below), the agency is recommending the following steps be taken if you catch a sick fish:

Release the fish back into the water with minimal to no handling. Use a fishhook-remover device. Avoid contact with skin, especially if you have cuts or sores on your skin.

Document where you caught the fish, and if possible, photograph it. A website is being developed on which anglers may post their findings.

Anglers are not advised to keep the sick fish because of the risks of the fish transmitting disease to humans.

If you bring in a red snapper with lesions, it does count toward your fishing quota.

The “minimal to no handling” recommendation should concern us all, signaling that it may be time take another look at NOAA’s “all clear” declaration on seafood safety. After all, the agency has publicly admitted that the fish shouldn’t be handled, and they may pose health risks if eaten raw.

Although Professor Cowan cautions that more research needs to be conducted before a definitive connection can be established, he doesn’t hide his concern: “I’m very worried because I’ve talked to both commercial and recreational fishermen who have been in the business 30 to 40 years and no one has seen anything like this.” One such fishermen is Donnie Waters: “I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before. I’m deeply concerned about the long-term impact of the fishery of the eastern Gulf.”

Like Waters, Professor Cowan also believes there are sick fish, not just off Alabama, but across the entire area of the Gulf hit by the BP spill. Research is taking place now to determine if the problem is, in fact, that widespread.

From the PNJ article:

The Sea Lab is collecting fish samples this week for further scrutiny by the FDA. A broader survey is poised to begin to determine whether the sick fish extend to areas beyond Alabama coastal waters. And NOAA is setting up a website on which recreational anglers can report any sick fish they find.

My guess is that NOAA and the FDA will ultimately confirm that there are sick, contaminated fish all over the northeastern quadrant of the Gulf of Mexico. This is a serious issue that has obvious implications for seafood safety as well as for the overall post-spill health of the Gulf. A highly contaminated link in the food chain can wreak havoc on the rest of the ecosystem.

If the government finally comes around to addressing these marine life issues head-on, before this is all through, we could very well see the re-closing of waters once deemed “all clear” for fishing. Stay tuned…

Catch up on NOAA’s “sick fish” guidelines here:

Read my previous post on the most urgent problems, including seafood safety, that must be resolved before the Gulf Coast can realize a full recovery:

Read my Dec. 16 post on exclusive test results that show red snapper samples taken off the coast of Pensacola to be highly contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons:

See the St. Pete Times story on sick fish here:

Read a good seafood testing story here at HuffPo:

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