NOAA’s Fisheries Service is closely monitoring conditions in the Gulf and working with states and local fisherman to ensure that the seafood that is sold at market and served on America’s dinner plates remains safe. NOAA is working with the FDA, EPA and Gulf states to ensure that fish and shellfish harvested from the Gulf of Mexico are safe to eat and of the same high quality people have come to expect. These measures benefit both consumers and the families who make their living from the Gulf’s bounty.
One of the first lines of defense to ensure safe seafood enters the market is to monitor the location of oil and its presence in federal waters. If oil is present or threatens to enter a location, NOAA will proactively close that area to commercial and recreational fishing. NOAA has continuously evaluated the need for fisheries closures based on the nature of the spill and is re-evaluating the closed areas as new information becomes available.
On May 3, to ensure the safety of Gulf seafood, NOAA Fisheries Service closed any areas that were known to have oil in the water or projected to in the near future. NOAA closed 6,817 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico to commercial and recreational fishing— largely between Louisiana state waters at the mouth of the Mississippi River and waters off Florida’s Pensacola Bay.
On June 2, the area closed to commercial and recreational fishing was at its largest measuring 88,522 square miles, which is approximately 37 percent of Gulf of Mexico federal waters.
On July 22, NOAA reopened one-third of the previously closed federal waters to recreational and commercial fishing after consulting with the FDA and following the reopening protocol agreed to by the FDA and the states. Because NOAA followed the established protocol that ensures only safe areas are reopened, Gulf fisherman have access to valuable fishing grounds and consumers and fish sellers are protected knowing that only safe seafood is entering the marketplace.
“This event has highlighted the interconnectedness of the ocean environment with our day-to-day lives and the importance of ocean resources to American communities.”
—David Kennedy, NOAA National Ocean Service Acting Assistant Administrator and NOAA Deepwater Horizon Incident Commander
The Gulf’s fisheries — and its important species — are under critical observation by NOAA scientists and ships.
NOAA sent one of its top fisheries science directors, Nancy Thompson, Ph.D, director of NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, to the Gulf on May 11 to lead NOAA's effort to rapidly assess, test and report findings about risks posed to fish in the Gulf of Mexico by spill-related contaminants and cleanup activities. NOAA is using test results to make decisions about where and how fishing should be curtailed in the region affected by spill, and about whether seafood is safe for consumption.
On June 25, NOAA ship Delaware II departed Key West, Fla., to collect tunas, swordfish and sharks, to gather data about the conditions these highly migratory species are experiencing in waters around the Gulf of Mexico spill site. This information will be vital in determining the overall affects the spill may have on these fish stocks
NOAA Ship Pisces, one of NOAA’s newest research vessels, conducted surveys of reef fish, bottom-dwelling fish, and shrimp in the eastern and western Gulf of Mexico to sample for seafood and water quality and species abundance.
NOAA Ship Oregon II departed from its home port of Pascagoula, Miss., on July 26 to collect samples of fish and shrimp off Louisiana at depths between 30 and 360 feet. The samples will be tested for contaminants as part of the ongoing program that ensures that seafood harvested from the Gulf remains safe.
Oysters and other shellfish are also under NOAA’s surveillance and subjected to rigorous testing. Two teams of scientists from NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and Southeast Fisheries Science Center collected oysters and sediment from nearly 60 Gulf Coast shoreline sites stretching from the Texas/Louisiana border to southwestern Florida. The samples were tested for 120 chemical and microbial contaminants — including 60 oil-related compounds — to determine if they are tainted.
NOAA has employed another important tool in determining whether seafood is safe for sale and consumption: the human sense of smell. The presence of oil and dispersant chemicals can be sensed by specially trained seafood inspectors by sniffing the seafood.
In May and June, NOAA sensory experts trained 56 Gulf state employees as sensory screeners. Trained sensory screeners can detect taint in seafood down to about 10 parts per million.
Samples that are passed by state-level sensory screeners are sent forward for further evaluation by NOAA and FDA sensory experts, who have sensitivities down to about 1 part per million.
For a sample to pass the sensory test, five of the seven NOAA and FDA sensory experts must find no detectable taint. If a sample passes the sensory test, it is sent forward for chemical analysis to ensure the seafood does not contain unsafe levels of contaminants.
NOAA expertise and science, paired with long-standing partnerships with local and academic organizations, are critical to the long-term recovery of the Gulf of Mexico’s productive coastline, vibrant fisheries and thriving wildlife.
NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard have taken steps to curb illegal fishing in closed areas. Effective enforcement is ensuring that the only fish to reach the market is safe and healthy.
Actions taken by NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard have led to 17 illegal catches being abandoned at sea. Since the first closure of federal waters to recreational and commercial fishing was announced on May 2, the agencies have worked together to patrol waters and docks to identify violations associated with the closure. This work ensures that fishermen abide by closed area restrictions, keeping tainted seafood from entering the marketplace.