Monday marked eight months since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill dumped 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening fragile coastal environments, scaring tourists away from beaches, and igniting a debate about regulation and responsibility. It also had some intangible, incalculable effect on Louisiana’s seafood industry.
It’s past time for these effects to be rendered tangible because they should be calculable. The current situation, in which the federal government assures us that Gulf seafood is safe while critics make sound arguments to the contrary, is intolerable. Ultimately, the survival of an industry integral not just to our economy but to our culture relies on an accurate answer. While the government is passing out BP penalty money, it should undertake a more comprehensive look at possibility of contamination. If industry advocates think such concerns have depressed seafood sales already, just let someone get sick and see what happens then.
Much is at stake. It doesn’t take much time in Louisiana to recognize the shrimp fisherman, in particular, as one of our archetype characters, like cowboys in the West or lumberjacks in the Pacific Northwest. Our local culture is influenced by the particular rhythm of that life, a respect for hard work and the toughness that comes from relying for your living on a little luck and a lot of providence. Acadiana without shrimpers wouldn’t be the Acadiana we know.
There’s money in it, too, for our regional and even national commerce. The Gulf accounts for 69 percent of the shrimp produced domestically, and up to 120 million pounds a year are harvested by Louisiana shrimpers, according to the state’s Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. Seventy percent of the nation’s oysters come from the Gulf, and Louisiana is the nation’s top producer of hard-shell and soft-shell crabs.
The federal government has tested Gulf seafood and found it safe for human consumption. President Barack Obama even sat down with his family for a meal of Gulf seafood to demonstrate its safety. But others have their doubts about the safety of seafood potentially contaminated by crude oil and by the chemical dispersants used after the spill.
A report in The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune summarized the objections of one New Orleans toxicologist: The federal tests could detect too narrow a range of pollutants; they underestimate the amount of seafood eaten locally, using the high end of national data; and they assume that the average person weighs 176 pounds, so the effects on children are underestimated.
These aren’t minor flaws. The feds owe the industry a more comprehensive look that will either identify problems or reassure the public that there aren’t any.