For Food Business, BP Oil Spill Is a Recipe for Disaster

shrimp BP oil spill
shrimp BP oil spill

As the BP (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil spill continues to devastate the Gulf coast fishing industry, worries are growing that contaminated seafood may find its way onto the dinner table. While retailers, restauranteurs and government officials scurry to protect consumers, the full implications of the environmental disaster are beginning to come to light.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) prohibits fishing in 78,000 square miles of the Gulf (as of June 8), an area roughly the size of Nebraska. While the move has helped keep tainted fish out of nets, it has also driven up prices on the fish that does make it to market: some retailers are already complaining about paying above-market prices for shrimp and oysters, and prices are expected to rise further.

At the same time, contamination worries have made Gulf coast seafood a tough sell. Some restaurant and grocery store owners are aggressively advertising the sourcing of their seafood -- as long as it doesn't come from the Gulf coast. In response, Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture has gone on the offensive, reassuring consumers that Sunshine State seafood is "safe and plentiful" and that his office is "constantly monitoring water samples off Florida's coast."

Perhaps the most surprising response has been the decision to use "sniffers" to smell batches of seafood. Working with the University of Florida and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the FDA is training workers to smell fish coming into docks and laboratories. NOAA also has its own sniffing program, with 55 workers on the job and another 55 in training. According to Steve Ottwell, a University of Florida professor involved with the FDA program, the sniffers are only the first level of detection; once a load of shrimp passes through their hands, it is subjected to further testing.

More Than Just Oil

While sniffers are likely to pick up the scent of Louisiana crude wafting up from piles of shrimp, they aren't trained to smell the chemical dispersants that BP has used to break up the oil spill. And, with more than a million gallons of the stuff dumped in the Gulf, it is unclear how the compounds are going to affect seafood. According to the safety sheet for Corexit EC9527A, one of the two main dispersants that BP is using, the compound is a "skin irritant" that "may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver." And worse, "Excessive exposure may cause central nervous system effects, nausea, vomiting, anesthetic or narcotic effects."

But direct contact is only the least of the problems with Corexit. The chemical works by breaking down the large oil slicks, forming droplets that can be more easily broken down by natural bacteria, evaporation, and tide. These dispersed plumes of oil are less likely to injure birds and won't be as destructive to shorelines.

On the other hand, dispersion doesn't make the oil disappear: the droplets collect on the seabed, where they may be consumed by the microorganisms that form the basis of the ocean's food chain. These tiny animals are then eaten by shrimp, oysters and other seafood, many of which could later find their way to the dinner table. Unlike the current crop of tainted fish, which are covered in crude, these fish will carry oil -- and its attendant toxins and carcinogens -- in their flesh. Some critics are already likening the Gulf's food problems to the mercury contamination that continues to be a problem for the seafood industry.

The future looks dark for Gulf fisheries: unless the FDA can train people to smell oil on the cellular level, chances are that much of the Gulf will be closed to fishing for decades to come.