“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.”
A segment on Marketplace, a public radio show, clued into the lack of attention being paid to dispersants as well. The program’s Web site also featured a helpful post on the ingredients found in Corexit, the dispersant being used, based on a list that Nalco, the manufacturer, had provided to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last month. Nalco claims its product is safe and the FDA has testified that, “The current science does not suggest that dispersants bioaccumulate in seafood.” But EPA administrator Lisa Jackson urged Congress to pass legislation strengthening the agency’s authority over oil dispersants on Thursday and called for more testing and disclosure of their ingredients, according to Greenwire.
Likewise, there is concern that NOAA is “hoarding vast amounts of raw data that independent marine researchers say could help both the public and scientists better understand the extent of the damage being caused” by the leaking oil and gas, according to an investigation by Dan Froomkin at The Huffington Post. “Scientists are primarily searching for signs of oil in water and the consequent depletion of oxygen,” a condition known has hypoxia that already causes a large annual “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet with so much that remains unknown about the direct and indirect effects of oil, gas, and dispersants on the Gulf ecosystem, it is no wonder that chefs, consumers, and journalists are all trying to strike the right balance between promoting Gulf seafood while exercising caution about contamination.
Earlier this week, Houston Chronicle reporter Ken Hoffman stopped for dinner at the usually packed Snapper’s Seafood in Biloxi, Mississippi, only to find he was the only customer. Nonetheless, he ordered the local Seafood Platter. It was “terrific,” he reported, “yet people, tourists and natives alike, are reluctant to buy it.” Because of the oil spill, the restaurant has had to raise the price of its famous shrimp po’ boy.
The story is the same for restaurants in Jacksonville, according to The Florida Times-Union, but the same concerns have risen farther from the Gulf as well. The Virginian-Pilot, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the Toledo Blade in Ohio have all reported on wary consumers and climbing prices for Gulf seafood. The Washington Post had an article about such issues along the Atlantic seaboard, which was couched in a fascinating narrative of one catch’s voyage from Florida to a fish counter in Annapolis.
Time Out Chicago pointed out that at least one booth at this year’s famous Taste of Chicago food festival featured a sign that read, “We do not serve seafood from the Gulf,” and posted a list of local restaurants and bars that were and were not serving the same. The outlet also had one of the best accounts of the trip that Calicchio and other celebrity chefs from major cities around the country made to Grand Isle, Louisiana in late June.
The Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board and John Folse, a local chef, organized the event in order to promote the safety of its product and encourage the participants to feature it in their restaurants. (The marketing board has also created a “news” Web site called LouisianaSeafoodNews.com.) According to Time Out’s report, the majority of people there accepted the message, but not all—like everywhere else, expressions of optimism were mixed with worry. And therein lie the challenges for journalists.
Reporters must do all they can to highlight Gulf seafood that is safe—and, indeed, encourage consumers to support that industry—while at the same time remaining vigilant and leery of safety claims in general. Hopefully, more testing and more data will make that task easier. But, for the time being, uncertainty reigns, and they must walk that tenuous line between confidence and caution.