BP has apparently stopped the flow of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time since the massive spill began in April—but that doesn’t mean all problems are solved.
“If you’re like us, you’re still trying to sort out whether it really is safe to eat Gulf seafood,” Chicago Tribune food writer Monica Eng wrote on Thursday.
Indeed, a spate of stories has come out this week focused on authorities’ efforts to evaluate the oil spill’s effects on seafood and other marine life, and, whether you read one or the lot of them, the bottom line isn’t exactly clear. Consider the following headlines:
• “NOAA: Gulf seafood tested so far is safe to eat,” Associated Press, July 10
• “Scientists say Gulf spill altering food web,” Associated Press, July 14
• “Oil Spill’s Impact on Gulf Seafood Remains Uncertain,” New York Times, July 13
Of those, the first seems to be the most apt description of the current state of affairs, and the media need to do more to highlight the fact that, so far, food safety protocols seem to be working. But that doesn’t mean the situation won’t change, and part of the tension evinced in the headlines is undoubtedly due to reporters’ desire to avoid alarmism on one side and passivity on the other. Tom Colicchio—a renowned New York City chef and television personality—hit the nail on the head when, after returning from a trip to the Gulf sponsored by the Louisiana seafood industry, he told the Times:
”There are two stories to tell right now… On one hand, they are telling me there are plenty of fish. On the other hand, you don’t want to make it seem like there’s nothing wrong.”
Striking the right balance in news coverage is a challenge, but incredibly important. Indeed, Gulf Coast fishermen have been complaining that the media have been doing more harm than good since early May. Those concerns have not abated. Fortunately, many news articles have been more nuanced than their contradictory headlines.
On July 1, the Biloxi Sun Herald reported that scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi and Tulane University had found droplets of oil in the larvae of blue crabs and fiddler crabs sampled from Louisiana to Pensacola, Florida, describing the discovery as “the first indication” that oil was entering the Gulf food chain. Within days of the spill’s start, however, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began catching and testing seafood for oil, looking primarily for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the most common toxic component of crude. NOAA has told reporters from The New York Times, USA Today, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and other outlets that the first line of defense is the no-fishing zone that currently covers roughly 35 percent of Gulf waters.
“The only contaminated fish sample to have been found so far came from an area closed to fishing, said Lisa Desfosse, director of the NOAA Fisheries Mississippi labs, who is coordinating the collection effort in the gulf,” the Times reported on Tuesday.
Many articles (see a roundup by the Society of Environmental Journalists) have also homed in on NOAA’s next line of defense—a group of seven “sniffers” at a federal lab in Pascagoula, Mississippi that have been trained to detect the smell of oil and other chemicals in seafood. If three of the seven catch a whiff of anything funny, a sample is considered tainted and the area where it was found is closed to fishing or prohibited from reopening. Seafood that passes the smell test, on the other hand, goes on for chemical analysis at a NOAA lab in Seattle.
The National Wildlife Federation has a useful Web site that explains how oil affects mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and ecosystems. The site also catalogues and number animals that have been found dead; the number found oiled, but alive; and the number cleaned and released. Oil is not the only concern, however.
“About 400 samples of commonly consumed species caught mostly in open waters - and some from closed areas - have been chemically tested and given a clean bill of health, according to [NOAA],” the Palm Beach Post in Florida reported on Tuesday. “However, no one is testing seafood to tell whether it has absorbed the toxic compounds found in the nearly 1.8 million gallons of dispersants BP has poured into the water to break up the oil.”