• Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Federal Seafood Testers Turn From Clean to Oiled Gulf Seas

4 June 2010 5:08 pm

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—As the oil spill has spread in the Gulf of Mexico, federal seafood toxicologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been racing to sample clean sites ahead of the advancing slick. Now the sampling effort is entering a new phase as scientists begin testing seafood from oiled areas.

"We're scrambling," said physiologist Walton W. Dickhoff sitting at his desk here at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center. "So far we've just been ahead of the oil spill," he says, to try to establish baseline contamination rates before the crude hits. Since 28 April, experts here have analyzed 60 samples, mostly red snapper, sent to them by gulf scientists. They are looking for oil and the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the most worrisome of toxins in oil. As expected, all but one showed no contaminants, and "that one is almost certainly a false positive," said Dickhoff.

Now NOAA is planning to take samples from shellfish and finned fish from oiled areas, using the most recent data available, while continuing to stay ahead of the advancing slick.

"We learned our lesson from Hurricane Katrina," he said, recalling the series of small oil spills the storm caused and the effects on the seafood industry there. "We were testing seafood for a year after Katrina—and they looked safe [to eat]. The problem was we didn't have samples we'd taken beforehand to compare them to."

For more on the gulf oil spill, see our full coverage.

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