University of Florida

Gulf Of Mexico Oil Spill

Frequently Asked Questions
About Florida Gulf Coast Seafood

An advisory compiled by Steve Otwell, Ph.D.
Seafood specialist, Florida Sea Grant College Program University of Florida Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition

(Gainesville, Fla.) -- Many of the accounts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have focused on potential impacts to the seafood industry and many consumers may have concerns about the safety of seafood they buy. These are answers to some frequently asked questions.

Is seafood from Florida’s Gulf coast safe to eat?

All seafood sold in Florida retail stores, supermarkets and restaurants will remain safe to consume prior to and during any potential exposure to contamination from the pending oil spill. Traditional food safety controls have been supplemented with additional emergency response plans by federal, state and county authorities. Control measures include monitoring  harvest waters and products, cautionary closures of certain waters and fisheries, analytical and sensory monitoring of products, and public advisories. Likewise, seafood will be provided from many areas that are not affected by the oil spill.

How do authorities determine the safety of seafood that may be exposed to an oil spill?

Tests using sophisticated laboratory instruments are used to detect a variety of potential chemical contaminants associated with water, sediments and seafood that have been exposed to oil spills. Likewise, special sensory methods have been developed and used by trained experts to detect certain aromas in seafood exposed to oil spills. The associated contaminants emit very strong and easily detected aromas such that sensory monitoring can be very cost-effective and more immediate than the more prolonged analytical procedures.

Should I eat seafood that I catch myself?

In the event of contamination, state authorities will try to restrict local harvest and recreational activities to coastal waters that are declared open and approved. Public advisories will be posted and broadcast through many agencies, radio stations and televised news. Progressive updates and contact information will be posted on various websites such as the site maintained by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Recreational fishermen should avoid areas with obvious signs of oil contamination on the water surface, or on neighboring beaches and vegetation. Also, it is not prudent to eat fish that look distressed, are behaving strangely, or have been found dead. Contaminants associated with an oil spill can be detected with simple sensory checks for odors. Any fish or seafood with an oily, fuel-like odor, either when raw or cooked, should not be eaten, and should be reported to authorities.

Will local seafood be contaminated by the oil spill?

There is no contamination at this time, but predictions suggest the leaking oil could accumulate and reach Florida coasts. If exposed to chemicals associated with the oil spill, some coastal marine animals will die or be contaminated. The amount of exposure will vary depending on the type of oil present and seafood involved. Experience from other oil spills indicates that some of the more mobile species can detect and avoid the contaminants, but other slower, burrowing and bottom-dwelling species are more susceptible. Exposure can be directly from the water, through the aquatic food chain, and/or from contaminated sediments.

Will all exposed seafood remain contaminated?

Once exposure ceases, many marine animals can gradually eliminate the contaminants encountered in an oil spill. The rate of elimination can vary from days to months, depending on the amount and type of oil exposure and the animals’ metabolism. Contamination levels will be monitored by authorities before, during and after exposure to assure seafood safety before allowing commercial and recreational harvest.

What are the typical contaminants found in seafood exposed to oil spills?

A large variety of chemicals can be involved in an oil spill. The most common contaminants associated with seafood are collectively known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. These are more common because their water-soluble characteristics allow more exposure to aquatic animals. Interestingly, PAHs are found throughout our environment including our food supply, both raw and cooked. There have been no recorded illnesses due to PAH exposure at most levels encountered in our environment or other foods, but elevated levels will require controls to prevent excessive exposure.

There are no established limits for PAH exposure, but guidelines have been calculated for consideration. These guidelines account for both the amount and duration of exposure, and vary by type of seafood. The guidelines are based on sensitive analytical detection of contaminants at concentration levels as low as parts per billion (ppb; one part contaminant per one billion parts of edible seafood). Federal and state authorities will use these guidelines to determine seafood safety and whether to allow harvest and consumption.

Where can I learn more about oil spills and seafood consumption?