People have questioned the safety of Gulf seafood ever since BP flooded the water with crude oil and methane gas a year ago, then sprayed and pumped the spill with unprecedented levels of chemical dispersants. The oil disaster hit just as shrimping season was about to begin, closing once-fertile fishing grounds and drawing attention to the scope of the spill. Were shrimpers and fishermen out of work just for the season, or would the environmental and economic impacts linger for years?
The question remains unanswered. Many fishing grounds shut down during the spill have reopened and Gulf seafood has been deemed safe to eat by government scientists. But fishermen have been pulling a lot of diseased fish out of the Gulf waters since winter, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
“The fish had dark lesions on their skin, some the size of a 50-cent piece. On some of them, the lesions had eaten a hole straight through to the muscle tissue. Many had fins that were rotting away and discolored or even striped skin. Inside, they had enlarged livers, gallbladders, and bile ducts,” the St. Petersburg Times reported.
Jim Cowan, a Louisiana State University oceanographer who has been examining some of the anomalous fish, told the Times that the snapper he’s seen “have a bacterial infection that’s consistent with a compromised immune system,” and that “there’s no doubt it’s associated with a chronic exposure to a toxin.”
Dr. Cowan said he believes the toxin making the fish sick is the oil, especially considering that they were caught in the vicinity of the oil spill and their symptoms. He also said that fish were affected in similar ways by other oil spills.
Four years after the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the herring fish industry collapsed. The reason: toxins compromised the fishes’ immune systems. No longer able to resist viruses and fungi, the entire herring population of Prince William Sound died off, ending a way of life and destroying economic vitality in that region of Alaska.
In the Gulf, the diseased fish have been caught 10 to 80 miles off the coast between the mouth of the Mississippi River and Pensacola, Florida – the part of the Gulf hardest hit by the BP oil spill.
Fishing is a way of life in the northern Gulf, and so scientists studying the oil spill’s effects on the Gulf ecology have to walk a thin line between scientific transparency and public relations. If widely publicized, their findings could potentially harm the Gulf’s hard-hit seafood industry, which encompasses everything from fishermen and small charter boat operations to restaurants and commercial fisheries. They also worry the fisherman who have been donating the sick fish they’ve found to the scientists will stop if people quit buying the good fish.
“Now we’re hiding information because political and economic interests don’t want you to say anything because it would affect economic interests,” William “Bill” Hogarth, a former federal fisheries official who now oversees the Florida Institute of Oceanography, told the Times. “But fishermen, they’re seeing fish that are deformed.”