Frozen fish, freshly caught in the Gulf of Mexico, come to the laboratory in Pascagoula, Miss., nearly every day since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began in late April.
Research vessels from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration bring fish samples from as far as Brownsville, Texas, and Tampa, Fla., and throughout the open waters of the Gulf. The goal is ensuring that fish even outside the expansive no-fishing zones are not contaminated before they hit the market.
At the NOAA Fisheries Pascagoula lab, seven highly trained seafood assessors — you might call them “professional fish smellers” — survey each sample that comes in by smelling raw product, cooked product and eventually tasting the cooked seafood. Along with a separate laboratory test of oil in fish samples done in Seattle, the “sensory” smell and taste tests are aimed at pinpointing whether fish outside of the closed areas may have become tainted.
“The main tool is that closed area, that red line, where there’s no fishing,” said John Stein, the head of NOAA’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill seafood safety program. “So we want to make sure that red line is in the right place.”
Already more than a third of U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico are closed to fishing, in an attempt to keep potentially tainted seafood from reaching the market. Those boundaries are determined by the geographic extent of the oil slick, with a buffer zone on either side for fish that may be moving in and out.
Sixteen separate NOAA and chartered vessels are collecting seafood samples from throughout the Gulf, particularly in areas on the edge of the closure zones to ensure the boundaries don’t need to be adjusted.
“We want to make sure that no tainted fish are moving out of the closed area,” said Lisa Desfosse, head of the NOAA Fisheries Mississippi labs, who is coordinating the collection effort in the Gulf.
So far only one tainted fish has been identified by seafood assessors in Pascagoula, and it was from a closed area. No sections of the Gulf have had to close due to the discovery of a tainted fish.
The safety inspections will play an even greater role once the well is capped, the oil subsides and the tough question surfaces: When can we fish safely in the Gulf? The labs in Pascagoula and Seattle are currently processing about 200 samples a week, and will be ramping up to test more than 1,000 samples a week.
The NOAA Seafood Safety inspection program is also working with the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and each of the Gulf states, which have set up seafood testing programs of their own.
Enlarge Rusty Costanza, The Times-Picayune RUSTY COSTANZA / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE Steve Wilson, chief quality officer for NOAA’s seafood inspection, demonstrates sensory testing of oysters at the NOAA Fisheries National Seafood Inspection Lab in Pascagoula, Mississippi on Thursday, July 8, 2010. Seafood Tested gallery (14 photos)
Dispersants will also be tested, but only based on the smell and taste tests.
According to the FDA, the dispersants “have a low potential to bioaccumulate in seafood and are low in human toxicity, therefore there is likely little public health risk associated with consuming seafood that has been exposed to them.” The FDA acknowledges that “It is possible for the dispersants to ‘taint’ seafood with a chemical smell. Even though the dispersant “taint” may not be harmful, seafood possessing the chemical smell is considered adulterated and not permitted for sale.”
On Thursday at the lab in Pascagoula, scientists cut open a thawed cobia brought in the day before, slicing a filet from each side. One filet will be sent to NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, where crews will grind up the fish and send it through a three-day analysis that measures chemicals in oil known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Some of these compounds can cause cancer.
The other filet goes to the lab room next door in Mississippi, where the panel of seven expert seafood assessors does the smell and taste tests. “Highly trained” is an understatement for the 18 seafood testers who rotate through the seven-person panel.
The testers have worked for NOAA doing “sensory tests” of seafood to classify different qualities of fish when sold to the market. But for the oil spill, each had to be “harmonized” to pick up the distinct smells of oil.
Steve Wilson, NOAA’s chief quality officer for seafood inspection, led a team that trained the expert testers, having them smell different varieties of oil scents, from Louisiana crude to Alaska crude to fuel oil. The team had to be trained offsite, in Gloucester, Mass., because the oil scent in the air along the Gulf Coast could interfere with the exact smell training.
“This is likened very often to the wine taster,” Wilson said. “It’s not just wine or seafood. Every food industry that has any sort of flavor concerns may do this: the beer companies, alcohol companies, coffee, candy.”
Conditions inside the smell and taste testing room are highly scrutinized. The experts were able to pick up the oil scent from Dawn soap in the room, so they replaced it with non-oil soap.
For now, the chemical and sensory tests are done to ensure the closures in the Gulf are accurate. Once the oil stops gushing and is cleaned up, both testing methods will be used to determine whether Gulf waters can be reopened.
Fish samples must pass both tests. That means the laboratory tests could show that the hydrocarbons pose no risk, but if the fish doesn’t pass the smell and taste tests it would fail.
“The public wouldn’t want to buy fish that smells like oil. It actually affects the marketability of that fish,” Wilson said. “It’s still considered, under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to be adulterated and tainted product.”