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

By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; A01

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.

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.

The result, federal officials say: all clear.

Of the 3,500-plus samples taken from the gulf during the spill, officials say none contained enough oil or dispersant to be harmful to people. They say that fish and shrimp don't tend to absorb dispersants and that their bodies tend to break down the toxic components of oil.

Consumers "should be able to buy, with confidence, Gulf Coast products," said Don Kraemer, a seafood-safety expert at the FDA.

The chief worry about oil-tainted food is not that it will kill unsuspecting diners. Kraemer said that even if such food wound up on a plate, it would smell so oily that diners probably wouldn't eat it. "If, however, you manage to choke it down, then the most common reaction would be a nausea or vomiting reaction," Kraemer said.

He said the dispersants used to break up the spill would not cause problems in the expected doses: Their ingredients are consumed in toothpaste and some medications.

But critics of the government say that if tainted seafood makes it to somebody's plate, that would be enough. The resulting hubbub could make their products unsellable.

"Unless and until a scientifically valid methodology is used, there should be no opening of the season," said Stuart Smith, an attorney for a number of commercial fishermen in the area. He said his clients wanted "to avoid a public relations disaster for the seafood industry."

Douglas Rader, chief oceans scientist for the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, said the government has not done enough tests to guarantee that open areas are free of oil. Even if tests came back clean, he said, currents could bring in oil or oiled creatures afterward.

"The problem is all the dispersed components of oil that are traveling independently through the complicated ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico," Rader said. "It seems like a rush to judgment."

'Who do you trust?'

Along the Gulf Coast on Monday, shrimpers and shrimp processors said they were struggling with worries about seafood safety. David Veal of the American Shrimp Processors Association said members kept calling him with a simple question: "Are we sure?"

"Well, it's as sure as we can be," he told them. "If we don't trust [the] FDA and the other agencies . . . who do you trust?"

He said many of his members were buying shrimp, and calls to scattered buyers confirmed that. The season was starting slowly, however, because so many shrimpers are working for BP's cleanup effort in the well-paying Vessels of Opportunity program. One buyer estimated that 45 of his 50 boats were chasing oil.

But in Venice, La., fourth-generation fisherman Eric Tizer found skepticism before he set out for the first day of the season. One buyer said she wouldn't pay anything until she had shipped the shrimp to get it tested for several days. He balked. She said forget it. Tizer wound up not shrimping.

"I don't know what to do. . . . BP won't give me a job. I can't sell my shrimp," Tizer said. On Tuesday, he said, he would take the chance. "I'm going to have to go, baby. I'm down to $80 in my pocket."

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