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Steps being taken to ensure Gulf Coast seafood's safety
MISSISSIPPI STATE – An army of scientists and experts are closely monitoring the Gulf of Mexico oil leak and local conditions to ensure that seafood being sold in Mississippi is safe for consumers.
Dave Burrage, a marine resources specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service in Biloxi, said the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and the Mississippi Health Department are guarding the safety of seafood being caught and sold.
“The industry continues to take precautions to ensure that all Gulf Coast seafood reaching consumers is of the high quality they have come to expect,” Burrage said.
He said the waters of the Mississippi Sound are open, but all the federal waters south of Mississippi are closed to all types of fishing. The Mississippi Sound is the water between the barrier islands and the coastline, and the federal waters begin about one mile south of the barrier islands, which are located about 10 miles off the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“These closings are causing quite a hardship for our offshore shrimpers. They are really being hurt because they can’t work,” Burrage said.
The red snapper season began June 1, but most of these fish are caught in federal waters, which are closed because of the oil spill.
“That not only impacts the recreational guys, but the charter boat industry as well,” Burrage said. “Then there’s the overall perception that we’ve got oil on our beaches, so it has really put a hurt on our tourism industry, too.”
The Mississippi shrimp season had a limited opening June 3, an event triggered when the shrimp in the Mississippi Sound reach a minimum size. This year, in addition to sampling for shrimp size, Burrage said the shrimp are being analyzed for traces of hydrocarbons from the oil spill.
“This is an extra measure they are taking to be on the safe side,” Burrage said.
On May 24, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke declared a fishery disaster in the Gulf of Mexico due to the economic impact on commercial and recreational fishers from the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The disaster area includes waters off Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
“We are taking this action today because of the potentially significant economic hardship this spill may cause fishermen and the businesses and communities that depend on those fisheries,” Locke said in a June 1 statement. “The disaster determination will help ensure that the federal government is in a position to mobilize the full range of assistance that fishermen and fishing communities may need.”
The declaration was made in response to requests from Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal based on the loss of access to many commercial fisheries and the anticipated environmental damage.
To date, nearly 25 percent of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico have been closed, with most of the closed area lying between Louisiana state waters at the mouth of the Mississippi River and east to the waters off Florida’s Pensacola Bay.
The Obama administration has requested $15 million of supplemental funding to address the disaster. Another $5 million has been requested to provide economic development assistance, unemployment coverage and economic injury disaster loans to fishermen and other affected business owners.
Jason Behrends, assistant Extension and research professor in MSU’s Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion, explained how authorities determine the safety of seafood that may have been exposed to the oil spill.
“Standard analytical tests involving sophisticated laboratory instrumentation are used to detect a variety of potential chemical contaminants associated with water, sediments and seafood that may have been exposed to oil spills,” Behrends said. “Special sensory methods have been developed and successfully used by trained experts to detect certain aromas in seafood exposed to oil spills.”
Behrends said previous experience with other oil spills indicates that some of the more mobile species of marine life can detect and avoid contaminants in the water. Slower, burrowing or bottom-dwelling species, such as oysters, are more susceptible to exposure.
“Once exposure ceases, many marine animals can gradually eliminate the contaminants encountered in an oil spill,” Behrends said. “The rate of elimination can vary from days to months depending on the amount and type of oil exposure and the metabolism of the particular animal.”
Authorities will continue to monitor levels of contamination to ensure the safety of commercial and recreational harvests. Find the latest water closings at http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/bulletins/fishery_bulletins.htm.