the observatory

“Two Stories” of Gulf Seafood

News reports tread the line between confidence and caution
July 16, 2010

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.”

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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.”

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 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.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.