Skip to main content

Seafood safe despite oil in Gulf of Mexico, experts say

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
  • Experts stress there are many measures in place to ensure seafood safety
  • Officials can prevent harvesters from pulling seafood from oily areas
  • Tuna, shrimp naturally move away from polluted water; oysters protected by shells

(CNN) -- As a sunken rig continues to spew 42,000 gallons of oil a day off the Louisiana coast, health and fishing industry experts say seafood will remain safe to eat.

"No one should be worrying about whether the shrimp they're having for dinner is going to have oil on it," said Mike Voisin, the past president of the National Fisheries Institute, a nonprofit organization that tracks the fishing industry and advocates seafood safety regulations.

There is the possibility, though, that the slick could move inland, threatening sea life in estuaries and seriously damaging the ecosystem.

"We're very concerned that east of the Mississippi River, based on currents and winds we're dealing with now, this oil will reach the shore," said Chuck Wilson, a Louisiana State University oceanography and coastal sciences professor.

Video: Robots being used to stop oil leak

"That could be a huge environmental problem and a significant financial blow to fisheries," he said. "But your food will be safe."

Voisin agrees on the safety issue.

"First, no company wants to put that kind of product on the market," Voisin said. "And those areas that have oil in them will be blocked by state health officials and not harvested."

Forty percent of the fish harvested in the lower 48 states comes from the Gulf of Mexico. But most seafood -- 80 percent -- consumed in the United States is imported, he said.

It has been a week since an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon, leaving 11 workers missing and presumed dead. The rig sank Thursday, and the leak was first spotted Saturday. Since last weekend, efforts to contain the spill have failed, mostly because of uncooperative winds, officials have said.

If the oil spill continues, nature will take its course and fish such as tuna and shrimp will instinctually migrate away from polluted waters, Voisin said.

The Coast Guard has said the spill occupies an area approximately 42 miles by 80 miles, and is roughly 40 miles offshore.

Oysters, which Voisin now harvests at his company in Houma, Louisiana, are most at risk because they can't move on their own and oil can get trapped in their gills.

But their shells protect their innards, said experts, who stressed that an oyster with an oily sheen isn't necessarily unviable.

That's where sophisticated oil-detecting instruments come into play.

One popular tool is called a gas chromatographer. Health workers and harvesters routinely use them to measure whether seafood has any trace of hydrocarbons, said Dr. Barbara Blakistone, the National Fisheries Institute's scientific affairs director.

"You can sample a section of water or, if you want to test each individual oyster, that's possible," she said. "But I think, perhaps in this case, they might have a pretty good idea how much oil they are dealing with."

BP, which was operating the rig, has said it is sending submarine-like robots about 5,000 feet underwater to close the rig's valves. That's extremely deep. Navy attack submarines dive to only 2,000 feet, according to military analysts.

The Coast Guard has also approved BP's attempt to remotely activate a large valve at the top of the well to stop the leakage.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and officials in Florida, Mississippi and Alabama are monitoring BP's progress and the spread of the slick.

Any of those authorities, Wilson said, could order the blockage of certain areas of the gulf from harvest.