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FDA Tests Rodeo Fish, Deems Seafood Safe

August 18, 2011
 
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

During the height of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year, I happened to be at Joe Wheeler State Park. While dining the lodge’s restaurant, a conversation cropped up with a couple from north Alabama when they found out I lived near the Alabama coast.

“What do you think about what’s going to happen to all that seafood with all that oil in the water?” the lady asked.

“It’s too early to tell,” I responded.

“Well, I’m not going to eat any of it. What are you going to do?” she asked.

“I’m going to eat all the seafood I can get my hands on,” I told her, much to her amazement. “Until I get proof of a problem, I’m going to keep eating it.”

Of course, proof of a problem never materialized, and I’ve consumed quite a large portion of seafood since.

Even more proof that the fish, shrimp and oysters that come from the Gulf of Mexico and coastal estuaries are safe to consume came recently during the 78th annual Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo at Dauphin Island.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had a team of researchers and scientists at the rodeo to collect tissue samples from the fish weighed in at what has now been confirmed as the largest fishing tournament in the world.

Bob Dickey, director of the FDA’s Gulf Coast Seafood Laboratory, said the sampling that took place at the rodeo was part of an extended surveillance program that has been in effect after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was finally stopped.

“The FDA indicated that we were to continue surveillance until we were quite sure and past sure that there were no seafood safety concerns,” Dickey said. “They wanted us to make sure we didn’t miss anything, and the rodeo was the perfect place to sample because they were bringing in fish from as far away as 150 miles from the wellhead east and west from Florida to Louisiana.

“So it was an opportunity for us to get a large number of samples in one sitting to screen for potential PAH (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) contamination. That’s the most concerning component of crude petroleum. Those PAH compounds can cause an acute toxicological response and are also known to be carcinogenic in some cases. So those are the ones we monitored for. From the very beginning of our response to the Deepwater Horizon event, we’ve been monitoring for the PAHs that we knew were in the oil because we’d profiled them. We had a sample of oil so we could take a look at what was there. Therefore, we knew what to look for in the fish, shrimp, crabs and oysters.”

The FDA later added testing for the dispersant chemical that was used during the oil spill to allay any public concerns about the effect of dispersants on the environment and seafood.

“From the very beginning we were confident that the dispersants were not a threat to seafood consumers, but we monitored for it anyway, just to reassure folks about the safety of the seafood,” Dickey said.

During the spill, the FDA moved a Chemistry Mobile Laboratory to the permanent FDA facility on Dauphin Island. The mobile lab consists of two trailers of equipment and a recreational vehicle that serves as the command post with a variety of computer and communications equipment.

“We’re a division of Seafood Science and Technology, and we’re a research laboratory,” Dickey said. “We don’t have multiple copies of the testing equipment needed to do screening like this, so we moved the mobile lab to our property on the island. We set them up and made sure they were up and running.

“Our staff then went to the rodeo to do the collections and identifications of the fish and all of the documentation. We ended up collecting 942 samples that week. That’s finfish, oyster and shrimp samples. We stayed on after the rodeo and collected oyster and shrimp, as well.”

Dickey said the samples were analyzed using the same methodology that was used when the oil was still spilling into the Gulf. A high-performance liquid chromatography with fluorescence detection was used to look for PAHs in the samples. All 942 samples collected from the rodeo and the week afterward have been analyzed and the results are being posted on the FDA Web site (www.fda.gov).

“What we found was that we were essentially getting flatlines,” Dickey said. “We weren’t seeing much of anything in the way of PAHs in the fish or oysters or shrimp, for that matter. There were small amounts in all three, but what we call background. It’s what we would expect to see anytime during the year – pre- or post-spill. We always have a background of these types of compounds in the environment, not only from oil but also  byproducts from the use of petroleum products in the marine environment.

“This is a part of the natural environment, as well. There are natural seeps out in the Gulf of Mexico. So we always have a background. As much as 20 million to 50 million gallons of crude oil a year leak into the Gulf of Mexico through natural seeps. In fact, that’s how they find a lot of the oil they end up drilling for. They look for seeps to find a spot to drill. It’s a dead giveaway.”

The vast media coverage devoted to the oil spill gave the impression of dire consequences with a forever-tarnished landscape along the Gulf Coast. Dickey admits there are unanswered questions, including whether the oil caused the loss of a spawning season for portions of the fishery that could leave a gap in the age structure of the fish.

“Oil spills are big and ugly events,” Dickey said. “They are visually very ugly and they do cause environmental damage. We don’t deny that one little bit. We don’t know the full and total impact on those finfish, shrimp and oysters. That will take some time to be determined.

“But the ability of those contaminants to get into the seafood that we consume, that’s what the FDA is concerned about. That’s what we were testing. We know that living seafood like finfish, crabs, shrimp and oysters have the ability to metabolize and excrete the contaminants. This is the same scenario that has played out with all the oil spills going back to even before Exxon Valdez. Given time, the seafood will metabolize it and excrete the oil contaminants. We have continued to collect samples to reassure ourselves and the public that we had not missed anything and that we were looking at enough samples from different locations so that when we say the seafood is safe for consumption that we are standing on firm ground.

“The conclusion is that the seafood remains safe to consume – as safe as it was before the spill.”

The Alabama Marine Resources Division is also starting a seafood-testing program, which will continue for the next three years. Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship said samples of finfish, shrimp, crab and oysters will be collected and then tested by the Alabama Department of Health for PAHs and dispersants.

Except for the stormy weather, Bob Shipp, longtime rodeo judge and head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama, said it definitely was a rodeo for the record books. Guinness World Records tallied the number of rodeo participants as 2,220 to beat the previous mark by 14 anglers.

“For about four hours on Sunday, that was about as intense a period of rain as I’ve seen outside of a hurricane,” Shipp said. “That was something. If it hadn’t been so stormy, we would have blown that record away.

“I feel very positive about this rodeo. The fish stocks all seem amazingly healthy and robust. We didn’t see any signs of any impact from the oil, based on what came into the weigh station. We were watching pretty carefully, especially red snapper because of the brouhaha about lesions. But we sure didn’t see any. I thought it was one heckuva rodeo.”

PHOTO: (By David Rainer) Anglers pile into the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo’s weight station to get their fish weighed on the final day of the 78th annual event at Dauphin Island. The Food and Drug Administration took tissue samples from almost 900 fish during the rodeo to test for any evidence of contamination from the oil spill. After the testing was completed, the FDA officials said Alabama seafood remains safe to consume.

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