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Gulf Fishermen Debate Whether to Risk Selling Seafood Again

August 13, 2010 at 9:11 PM EST
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No oil has leaked from the broken Gulf well since July, and the federal government is reopening some waters for fishing. But some fishermen are split over whether to start trawling the waters again when there may be a risk of seafood being contaminated with oil and dispersants. Tom Bearden reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, the continuing fallout of the Gulf oil spill. Though the well appears to be plugged, the government’s point man, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, insisted today BP must still complete a relief well to ensure the job is done for good.

No oil has leaked since mid-July, but many concerns and tensions remain, including over the safety of seafood. From southern Louisiana, “NewsHour” correspondent Tom Bearden reports.

MAN: We’re not saying don’t open the season!

MAN: Yes, you are!

MAN: You’re not listening! What are we saying? Open the clean areas. Let us know where they’re at. And let us go to work.

MAN: That’s right.

MAN: That’s what we’re saying.

TOM BEARDEN: Emotions were running high yesterday in a rain-soaked parking lot at the Riverside restaurant in Venice. Two factions of people in the seafood business angrily argued whether shrimpers ought to go back to work Monday when the state is expected to reopen fishing grounds that were closed after the Macondo oil well blowout.

MAN: I’m concerned what happens to this industry! I’m concerned he goes and gets clean shrimp, he goes and gets dirty shrimp.

How do you know what the hell is going to happen?

MAN: Let me make another point.

MAN: You don’t know, Matt (ph)! We don’t know!

TOM BEARDEN: Acy Cooper is the vice president of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association. He says there’s still oil in the areas reopening, and that risks contaminated seafood getting into the food supply. Cooper says if anybody gets sick, the Louisiana seafood industry is finished.

ACY COOPER, Louisiana Shrimp Association: If we’re going to do it, let’s make sure it’s right. We’ve got one shot at this, that’s it, because once it gets out there and somebody happens to gets sick and the whole country, somebody is going to get sick then it’s going to come back on him and I. That’s who is going to take the lick for it us.

TOM BEARDEN: Cooper says despite government claims that most of the oil is gone, there’s plenty of it still on the bottom.

ACY COOPER: I went out there and we made about four or five passes with the wheel, with the boat, stirred up the mud, and before you know it, oil was coming up. So these are the kind of areas that we need to distinguish where it’s at, and these are the new places we need to keep closed. We don’t need to open this. Keep them out of there.

TOM BEARDEN: But other shrimpers and dock owners are desperate to get back to work, catch some shrimp, put some money in their pockets.

MAN: I want to make money. I want to support my family.

MAN: I want to, too.

MAN: So what are we going to do, sit here and starve to death? The scientists say there’s nothing wrong with it.

MAN: All right. Look, I’ll come with you. You take me to where the worst spot is, catch a few shrimp. I’ll hit them with Dawn and boil and eat them right there in front of you.

MAN:
That’s you.

MAN: That’s me.

MAN: But will the American people do that? Will the American people do that? No! That’s why you don’t do it!

TOM BEARDEN: Randy Pausina is one of the scientists who says the fishing grounds are safe. He’s the assistant secretary of Fisheries for Louisiana and a marine biologist.

How do you know they’re safe to open?

Testing. Testing.

RANDY PAUSINA, Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries: We’ve been testing since May 9th as a state, even before the federal protocols were in place. To date, we’ve done over 500 samples, well over 15,000 individual animals.

We still continue to do it. Instead of doing it weekly now, we do it on a monthly basis, because we now we also have the joint FDA protocol in place as well. So we have two testing programs going on simultaneously.

TOM BEARDEN: Pausina says all of samples have come out 100 percent clean.

JOHN REUTHER, president, Central Analytical Laboratories: We’re looking for contaminants that could arise from crude oil contamination, so in particular hydrocarbons.

TOM BEARDEN: John Reuther is president of central analytical labs in New Orleans. They test seafood found in state waters under a contract with two state agencies. The state has also been waiting for U.S. Food & drug administration approval before reopening waters to commercial fishing.

Technicians here analyze seafood samples, looking for hydrocarbons which would indicate the presence of oil. So far, no samples taken by the state and FDA have been found with levels that could threaten human health.

But the process doesn’t satisfy Cooper. He and other fishermen are also deeply worried about the dispersant chemicals BP used to break up the massive oil slick.

Reuther says that there is no currently approved test for dispersants, but he also says there’s no risk to people who eat seafood.

JOHN REUTHER: To our knowledge, dispersants are not accumulated in fish flesh, and we don’t expect to find any dispersants accumulating in the flesh. So we don’t think were going to find anything, but we won’t know until we actually test it.

TOM BEARDEN: But it is fairly well established scientifically that this does not persist in fish?

JOHN REUTHER: That’s correct.

TOM BEARDEN: But test results are of limited use when it comes to restoring Gulf seafood’s reputation.

WOMAN: We have been trucking and driving, man. It’s been good.

TOM BEARDEN: Ewell Smith is the executive director of the Louisiana Seafood and Marketing Board. He says it’ll take a long time and a great deal of money to change public perception. That’s why the state is asking BP to fund a national marketing program.

EWELL SMITH, Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board: Now the well’s capped, we need to start rebuilding our brand. It’s going to take us years. We’re looking at five years at least to rebuild our brand, and we need those dollars now from BP. And hopefully we can get them tomorrow so we can get to work. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have to say, all of us were very excited after the game.

TOM BEARDEN: When the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints visited the White House earlier this week, the seafood board was there to build a 30-foot shrimp and oyster po-boy sandwich for the occasion, hoping to get some publicity for the idea that Gulf seafood is safe.

Smith says it’ll take a lot of stunts like this to make a difference.

EWELL SMITH: Because the brand is so important to this state, it’s you know, you look at families and seven or eight generations. We employ thousands of people. Over 30,000 jobs are directly impacted by the seafood communities in Louisiana. It’s a huge economic engine to this state.

TOM BEARDEN: The larger long term question is whether all of the varieties of fish and shellfish in the Gulf will ever completely recover. The scientific jury’s still out on the long-term impact of crude oil on the next generation.

RANDY PAUSINA: We have not seen massive fish kills and that sort of stuff to date, and we don’t expect that we will. What’s unknown is it is a fact that the dispersants in the oil, so the mixture of the two, is lethal to fish eggs, larval fish. So it’s something that we’re not going to see for a year or two down the road.

TOM BEARDEN: The state has also asked BP to fund the scientific studies to answer all these questions. So far, the company has declined to do so. <-->