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Unallayed by tests, fishermen greet start of gulf shrimp harvest with suspicion

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More sections of the Gulf of Mexico are being opened to fishing as intense testing finds few hazards in samples checked so far. A chemist at a NOAA testing lab explains the process.

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By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On Monday, Louisiana's shrimpers could shrimp again. On the first day of the state's fall season, boats began unloading their catch at bayou-side docks, and processors began peeling, freezing and packaging the shellfish for the long trip to America's dinner plates.

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Federal officials said it was safe. They had allowed states to reopen harvest areas, they said, only after tests on fish and shrimp showed no signs of oil or dispersants. In fact, federal officials said, they did not turn up a single piece of seafood that was unsafe to eat -- even at the height of BP's oil spill.

But, like many things in the Gulf of Mexico, Monday's ritual only looked like a return to normal. In some places, the start of shrimping was greeted with suspicion instead of joy.

Some fishermen and their families worried that the government's testing was inadequate -- and that if any seafood diners wound up with a plate of oil-tainted scampi, it would be a knockout blow for their industry. In Venice, La., a shrimper was told he wouldn't be paid for his catch until the buyer ran it through tests.

"The fishermen don't want to make people sick. I wouldn't feed that to my children without it being tested -- properly tested, not these 'Everything's okay' tests," said Tracy Kuhns, a shrimp-boat owner from Barataria, La. She said that because she and her husband were not confident in the government's assurances they had not gone shrimping Monday.

The gulf oil spill -- which confounded expectations by largely sinking instead of floating on the water -- has been confusing even in death. On Monday, more than a month after BP's gushing well was capped, a group of Georgia academics released an estimate showing that up to 79 percent of it was unaccounted for. That contradicts a federal report, which puts the amount at 26 percent.

The Obama administration has sought to calm fears about gulf seafood. The president served gulf shrimp at his White House birthday party and ate more seafood on a family trip to Florida's Gulf Coast over the weekend.

"We need to let the American people know that the seafood being harvested from the gulf is safe to eat," Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said Monday during a tour of a shrimp-processing plant in Louisiana. "I think there have been a lot of misperceptions out there. A lot of testing is done before we open state and federal waters to fishing. We're being very thoughtful, very careful and very deliberate."

Twenty-two percent of federal waters in the gulf remain closed, down from 37 percent at the worst of the spill.

Several states have reopened their waters closer to shore for shrimping.

A vital industry

Shrimping is a vital business for the coast: In 2008, Louisiana alone brought in shrimp with a dockside value of $133.5 million, 44 percent of the U.S. catch. But there, shrimpers lost most of their spring season -- which runs from mid-May to early July -- because of the spill. The fall shrimping season runs from mid-August to December.

The areas were reopened after the Food and Drug Administration and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tested dozens of samples of flesh from fish and shrimp caught in the region. The tests begin with a sniff -- trained experts smell the flesh, testing for crude or the Windex-like odor of chemical dispersants. Then, the samples are tested chemically for oil; there is no chemical test for dispersants.


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