Will fears about the oil spill's effect on seafood from the Gulf make us think more about where our fish comes from?
There was a Ukrainian woman at the market selling big red apples. “Come get your apples! Chernobyl apples!” Someone told her not to advertise that, no one will buy them. “Don’t worry,” she says. “They buy them anyway. Some need them for their mother-in-law, some for their bosses.”—“Monologues by Those Who Returned” from Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen
Last Thursday,about 60 boats headed out from the Mississippi coast for the early opening of shrimp season. A hundred miles away, crude oil poured out into the Gulf of Mexico from the collapsed Deepwater Horizon oil rig. With about two-thirds of the Gulf still open for fishing, and opportunities still available in coastal estuaries and areas west of the Mississippi River delta, fishermen are still landing fresh Gulf shrimp.
But a perception that the spill has tainted seafood might finally be their undoing—more so than the growing hypoxic dead zone, accusations that fishing endangers turtles and sea life, and steep competition from imported shrimp. But should Gulf shrimp be seen as an aquatic version of the Chernobyl apple? Or should we all stick up for fishermen by eating more Gulf shrimp?
British Petroleum’s CEO Tony Hayward and Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, two men tasked with stopping the spill, appear to be doing the latter. They were recently spotted at New Orleans’s Eleven 79, eating shrimp. Iconic Cajun chef Paul Proudhomme has also spoken out in favor of local seafood. AAnd today and tomorrow, dozens of high-profile chefs in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco plan on supporting fishermen with a Dine Out for the Gulf Coast, a benefit for the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.
On the one hand, this might seem like a series of shallow public relations efforts. On the other, chefs who pride themselves on seasonal and sustainable foods—Jose Andres and Alice Waters, for example—have endorsed the cause. That's an important first step in convincing a skeptical public that Gulf seafood is safe. (The White Boot Brigade embarked on a similar attempt when it touted Louisiana’s distinctive brackish-water shrimp to chefs in New York and San Francisco in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.)
Federal regulators also stress that seafood is safe. One toxicologist told USA Today that even if contaminated shrimp were reaching the market, oil isn’t highly toxic (hydrocarbons are even permitted for use in foods—as insecticide and as the waxy preservative coating) and consumers would have to eat a ton of seafood for decades for it to be harmful. The toxicity of dispersants used to break up the oil also remains unknown, although they reportedly dissipate in the short term (Reuters reported that its active ingredient was an emulsifier found in ice cream). Over the long term, though, dispersing oil may be like putting taller smoke stacks on a factory to reduce air pollution: the background levels of pollution still rise everywhere.
If there’s any silver lining in the ecological disaster, it may be that in their attempts to avoid Gulf shrimp, people will pay more attention to where their seafood comes from and how it's harvested. As Ellycia Harrould-Kolieb, a marine scientist with the nonprofit Oceana, told me, “It’s always good when people take notice of the oceans. It’s incredibly unfortunate that this is the kind of thing that raises awareness. The impacts of the spill will be felt for many years.”
Perhaps we will come to realize that the cheapest shrimp is usually the most environmentally destructive, and potentially toxic, shrimp in the world. The Gulf fishery, the nation’s largest commercial shrimp fishery, catches fewer than 10 percent of the shrimp consumed in the United States. Ever since 1933, when the Japanese scientist Motosaku Fujinaga spawned shrimp in a lab, warm-warm aquaculture farms across Thailand, Indonesia, Ecuador, and China have been steadily growing as producers. Environmentalists say these saltwater feedlots jeopardize mangrove forests and pump shrimp full of antibiotics. But by 2006, six times as many shrimp were imported, driving down domestic shrimp prices and transforming what was a luxury crustacean into the country’s favorite seafood.
There may be no better time for U.S. shrimpers to demonstrate how sustainably fishing the Gulf is antithetical to the kind of environmental destruction that comes with offshore drilling. And there is also no better time for chefs and eaters to support an important economic backbone of the Gulf. Let's hope the unfortunate disaster's effects on our beloved seafood advance a national ocean policy to protect the economic and ecological resources of the region—if it isn't already too late.