Three years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Gulf of Mexico seafood industry is still holding its breath and expecting the worst. After all, sick fish are still turning up off Louisiana. Scientists are still probing potential problems with crabs and shrimp.
"There's still a lot of nervousness," said Bob Jones of the Southeastern Fisheries Association, a commercial fishing trade group based in Tallahassee.
How nervous is the seafood industry? After the Times ran an article this month on the discovery that the 2010 oil spill caused a mass die-off of microscopic fish in the gulf, the Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition offered the reporter an all-expenses-paid trip to New Orleans.
The two-day trip, which the Times declined, was to include free French Quarter seafood restaurant fare in an effort to persuade Americans "that gulf seafood is not only safe to eat, but one of the healthiest and most delicious choices you can make for your family," explained spokeswoman Amy Noesser Lee.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster began on April 20, 2010, with an explosion aboard an oil rig off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 crew members. The rig sank, and two days later oil began spewing from the broken wellhead in water a mile deep. BP managed to shut it off at last on July 16, 2010.
One of the major economic victims of the spill was the seafood industry. Florida fishermen catch more than 84 percent of the nation's supply of grouper, pompano, mullet, stone crab, pink shrimp, spiny lobsters and Spanish mackerel, a haul totaling more than $200 million annually.
As the spill grew larger that summer, so did the area of the gulf closed to fishing by the National Marine Fisheries Service office in St. Petersburg. Ultimately more than 88,000 square miles — a third of the gulf — was shut down.
What hurt the gulf's $460 million seafood industry more was the publicity. The dramatic effort to shut off the oil, played out on TV screens around the globe, scared customers away from ordering fish or shrimp caught anywhere in the gulf. Restaurants took it off their menus and grocery chains removed it from coolers, even though it had been caught in areas declared safe.
Regulators say they've seen no problems. Between August 2010 and March 31 of this year, the state's Division of Food Safety has screened 3,090 seafood samples, including 1,828 finfish, 313 shrimp, 375 oysters, 255 crabs, 261 clams and 58 lobsters, without finding any oil contamination.
Yet even as the industry has worked to win back customers, scientists have been grappling with how to measure the spill's gradual effects on fish and other sea creatures. Both groups know it took eight years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill for the herring hatchery to collapse.
"We're concerned about the long-term effects," said John Williams of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, a coalition of shrimp industry groups from eight states. "Three years is too short to judge."
Six months after the spill ended, anglers began pulling in red snapper with ugly lesions. Tests by University of South Florida scientists verified that chemicals from Deepwater Horizon oil had clogged their livers, causing immune system problems.
The number of fish with lesions has declined, but there are other disturbing signs.
"We still are seeing sick fish, but the incidence of gaping sores has gone down," Louisiana State University oceanographer Jim Cowan said last week. "We are seeing a high number of fish that have discolored areas on the body … where the scales easily slough off when the fish are handled. We have continued to see low liver weights in those fish with outward signs of problems."
Darryl Felder, a University of Louisiana biology professor, has been studying deep-water shrimp and lobsters as well as crabs caught in Louisiana's Barataria Bay, which was inundated with oil. He said the deformities originally found on the shrimp and lobsters have eased up, but not on crabs.
"People are bringing in (crabs) that are really messed up," he said. "The crab catches are really down, and what they're getting have big lesions on them — lesions and fungal or bacterial infections."
The problem, he said, is that no one was documenting these species before the disaster, so it's hard to say whether this is normal or was caused by the oil.
At a laboratory at Florida International University, marine science professor Heather Bracken-Grissom is subjecting crabs, shrimp and lobsters to Deepwater Horizon oil, both by itself and with doses of the dispersant BP sprayed on the oil to stop it from reaching shore. She's trying to determine whether it alters their genes.
"We're testing the stress effects of the oil spill on those organisms and how they respond to stress," she said. But it could take a long time to see results.
Out in the gulf, at least on the surface, everything seems normal. The question is what's going on down below.
"The fishing's pretty good," said Bob Spaeth, Southern Offshore Fisheries Association president. "But our biggest concern is the future. We're worried about egg-bearing because of chemically altered genetics of some of the fish. We aren't sure what the larvae are going to turn out like."
He's particularly worried about what will happen four to five years from now, when a generation of fish of certain sizes might turn out to be missing due to oil-related diseases.
"If we lose two or three years of sizes then the fisheries will collapse and we'll have to shut down," Spaeth said. "And that would affect all fisheries, both commercial and recreational."
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.