No Evidence Gulf Oil Spill Killed Fish, Says NOAA

October 20, 2010 - 4:13 PM

oil rig explosion

Fire boats surround the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on Wednesday, April 21, 2010, before the rig sank. (AP Photo/US Coast Guard)

(CNSNews.com) – There is no evidence the Deep Water Horizon oil spill killed any fish, according to federal and state officials overseeing the oil cleanup, while captured commercial fish passed testing by multiple government agencies. But even with plenty of fish in the sea, the fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico is still suffering from a big perception problem.

“In federal waters, I can tell you, there haven’t been any fish kills reported that are linked to the oil spill,” Christine Patrick, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told CNSNews.com. “I know there have been fish kills reported in state waters, but I think they have determined they weren’t a result of the oil spill.”

Fish have died for seasonal related reasons, said Bo Boehringer, spokesman Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

“We’ve investigated fish kills, but none have yet been tied to oil impacts,” Boehringer told CNSNews.com.

Kevin Anson, chief biologist for Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said, “As far as wildlife, we have not observed or pinpointed any mortality in Alabama state waters of any finfish that could be attributed directly to oil. We had observed a fish kill throughout the event when there was oil in the area or offshore. But we attributed those mostly to natural phenomenon.”

Nevertheless, the region’s fishing industry took a beating, said Ewell Smith, president of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, a state fishing industry group.

NOAA has teamed with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to test the seafood along with various state agencies.

“All of them have come back with a clean bill of health, which is all different groups doing the testing. That’s the good news,” Smith told CNSNews.com. “It is the most tested food source in the world right now.”

The lack of fish deaths and contaminations is not a surprise to Smith, who said fish just swim out of the way when they see something dangerous in the water.

“It’s like, if there is a burning building, you’re not going to walk into it if you see it,” Smith said. “You’re going to turn around and walk in the opposite direction. That’s what fish do. They’re able to get out of the way.”

Some of the reasons for no contaminated fish may be that waters are not reopened for fishing until the government first determined there is no oil in the water. If that is determined, a sampling of fish is tested for contamination, and if even one of the fish fail, the area of water is not opened for fishing.

Once an area is opened for fishing, all the fish caught by commercial fishermen must still be tested by government agencies before going to market.

Further, finfish naturally excrete oil, making them less likely to be contaminated.

“What’s also known, fish metabolize and excrete oil, as opposed to something like Mercury, which builds up in their flesh,” NOAA spokeswoman Patrick said. “So after exposure to oil, within a matter of days or weeks, fish – and to a lesser extent shrimp and crabs and shell fish – can clear their bodies of it. If it’s tainted on May 3, would it be tainted on June 3? It could pass.”

Still, experts warn it might take years before it is known with absolute certainty what impact the oil spill had on fish.

The number of fish may be higher than ever, said Darrell Carpenter, president of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association and owner of Reels Screamers Guide Service in Jefferson Parish. Still, he said there could be long-term effects.

“The fish are off the charts. There are no fewer fish. There are more fish, because they’ve been un-harassed all summer. There are more and bigger fish,” Carpenter said. “The only uncertainty is all the biological science. The wildcard is fish internal organs, did their eggs survive? Did they have healthy offsprings? It will take a couple of years for that to unfold.”

The perception that something is wrong with seafood from the Gulf of Mexico could also take a while to overcome. Smith said demand has dropped dramatically, and he said he is aware that seafood restaurants in New York and Chicago have posted signs assuring customers they are not serving seafood from the gulf.

“It took Alaska after the Valdez five years to overcome the perception,” Smith said. “Think about it. Back then you only had the five o’clock news and the 10 o’clock news. We had an oil gusher, and that image coming up for over three months. That image has been burned into people’s imagination. So it’s going to take time to overcome that.

“There’s always hype in circumstances like this,” Smith continued. “The fear of the unknown drove this to levels that are probably unprecedented. What I mean by that is people just did not know when they were going to shut this thing off.”

The perception “essentially shut down tourism for the peak season of the year,” said Violet Peters, president and CEO of the Jefferson Parish Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Most of our small businesses are tourism related,” Peters told CNSNews.com. “In August 2009 there were 30 charters. In August 2010 there was one. It’s been devastating.”

The Mississippi gulf coast was barely affected at all by the spill, Janice Jones, spokeswoman for Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, told CNSNews.com, except for some tar balls found in late June. Nevertheless, restaurants and hotels suffered greatly.

The Florida gulf coast has seen some recovery in tourism, said Laura Lee, spokeswoman for Visit Pensacola. Just last weekend a major concert was held on Pensacola Beach drawing tens of thousands to hear Bon Jovi, Willie Nelson, Brad Pasely and others.

“Summer was down. Business was down as much as 30 percent,” Lee told CNSNews.com. “We used BP funds for a market push with American Express. Our Labor Day was one of the best ever, and we anticipate that September/October will be on a par with last year.”

While many of the problems are perception based, there are still questions regarding the long-term impact on fish and wildlife, said Anson of Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“The general consensus is that we need to look at long-term effects,” said Anson. “After the spill, tests were performed to ensure the safety of the seafood, the results which showed there was no tainted seafood due to the oil. Still the confidence in purchasing the seafood in the gulf right now is low. Because of that, there are more fish, but to say the oil spill didn’t cause any mortalities, I’m not sure about that.”

“We’ll probably have to wait until those fish start showing up in historical context,” Anson told CNSNews.com. “There are other species to determine if they became adults, direct mortalities associated with the oil spills. Other areas of concern or impacts are reduction in growth, reduction in reproductive capacity, oil through injection causes biological functions. Those would require laboratory testing in some instances.”

The remaining closed waters make up 16,481 square miles of waters off the gulf, according to NOAA. The first waters were closed on May 2, making up just 6,817 square miles of the ocean off the gulf.

Closures peaked at 88,522 square miles of waters closed to fishing by June 2. That remained about the same until more areas were opened in July 22, leaving 57,539 square miles closed. That number gradually declined over the past months.

There are two ways that oil can cause fish to be unfit for consumption, according to the FDA. The first is through the presence of chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), some of which are carcinogens. The second way is if it smells like petroleum product. This is known as the presence of “taint.” Under the law, a product tainted with petroleum is considered “adulterated” and is not permitted to be sold as food, according to the FDA.

For a part of the sea exposed to oil to be open, the first criterion is for tests to show it no longer contains oil. After that, a sampling of fish is caught for testing. If a fish passes sensory testing at the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory in Pascagoula, Miss., it goes to NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle for chemical testing.

In sensory testing, a panel consisting of a minimum of 10 expert sensory assessors will evaluate each sample in both a raw and cooked state, according to the FDA. To pass the sensory test, a minimum of 70 percent on the panel must find no “detectable petroleum or dispersant odor or flavor from each sample.”

Chemical testing looks for harmful levels of PAH, which would automatically disqualify an area from being opened if PAH is found in a fish. 

Out of 2,733 sensory tests, there have been two failures, said Patrick, spokeswoman for NOAA. There have been no failures out of the 2,768 chemical tests.

As for other animals, The Deep Water Horizon Response website – made of the various government agencies responding to the BP oil spill that began in the spring and lasted throughout most of the summer – reports there were 6,104 dead birds collected, and 2,263 of those were “visibly oiled.”

The Consolidated Fish and Wildlife Collection Report released on Oct. 13, further states that 603 sea turtles were found dead, only 17 of which were visibly oiled and 97 dead mammals were collected, but just four were found to have come in contact with oil.