Expanded testing ensures safety of gulf seafood

Photos of empty beach chairs and half-filled resorts along the Gulf of Mexico capture the nervous psyche of summer tourists avoiding waters tainted by the BP oil spill.

The truth is that the vast majority of the thousands of miles of coastline are free of tar balls or oil that is unfortunately affecting some shorelines in parts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

To help get the message out that “the coast is clear,” many Florida destinations have set up real-time beach webcams and offer “clean beach guarantees” to hotel guests.

Go fish for Gulf Coast

Another victim of “oil spill apprehension” is the gulf's seafood industry. While dining out last week at an Atlanta-area restaurant noted for fresh fish, I asked the server whether customers were inquiring about the safety of gulf seafood. He said just about everyone is concerned, and he told me the restaurant stopped buying product from the gulf so it wouldn’t have to worry about any possible problems.

Cautious? Yes. Necessary? No. While nearly 36 percent of the gulf has been closed off to fishermen by federal authorities, that leaves 64 percent unaffected by the oil spill.

“Gulf seafood is getting a bad rap,” said Robert Pidgeon, the director of purchasing for regional distributor Inland Seafood.“What we’re buying is wholesome, safe and wonderful to eat.”

To help regain sales, the state of Florida recently issued this message: “Despite the images from the gulf, Florida seafood is safe and ready to be enjoyed. The fresh catch from clean, unaffected Florida waters is coming in daily. We're in business, but we need you.”

And chefs are responding. Jeff Tunks, the executive chef of five seafood restaurants in Washington, D.C., including DC Coast and Acadiana, supports gulf fishermen with confidence. “The seafood itself has been inspected more so than ever before,” he said.

In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Food and Drug Administration have stepped up testing, including dockside inspections to ensure fish are caught in approved waters, and increased sampling for laboratory analysis for contaminants.

Inland Seafood and other distributors and suppliers are doing more to test for evidence of potential oil contamination, too. “FDA and NOAA have asked us to add a new step to our safety check system," Pidgeon said. "... We’re taking extraordinary measures to ensure safety.”

Oysters and shrimp

Pidgeon is concerned, however, about the future impact on oysters and shrimp as more oil moves ashore.

“We expect problems with the supply of fresh shucked oysters from the gulf region," he said. "If you like fried oyster po' boys, you can kiss those goodbye, especially at prices we’re used to seeing. Oysters are the most expensive I’ve ever seen them, even higher than after Katrina.”

A quick survey of several Atlanta-area restaurants revealed gulf shrimp still on the menu. But Pidgeon said those are probably from frozen stocks caught last fall. “I heard a story of a lady who complained her shrimp tasted like oil," he said, "but the restaurant owner checked the product date and she was eating shrimp caught in 2009.”

Help a fisherman

Perhaps the biggest threat to coastal towns dependent on fishing and those who sell and serve their catch is the worried consumer who is unnecessarily avoiding safe and nutritious seafood from gulf waters.

“These are often 100 percent family-owned business,” Pidgeon said, “and we should be helping them in their hour of need.”

So, even if you can’t personally work to contain the spill or contribute to cleanup projects, you can help fishermen and related businesses by continuing to enjoy fresh seafood from the gulf.