So Gulf seafood is safe, but should we eat it?

No sooner had oil stopped gushing into the Gulf of Mexico–if only temporarily–than a campaign was underway to convince Americans to buy Gulf seafood, now that everything is “back to normal.”

Engineered by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, the campaign penetrated news media nationwide this weekend, most of which dutifully reported that Gulf seafood is safe to eat. Most overlooked another question hanging over Gulf seafood: whether eating the healthy survivors of BP’s oil-spill disaster can be good for the Gulf’s recovery.

The Louisiana Seafood Board wants to counter the perception, documented in this University of Minnesota study, that Gulf seafood may be tainted.

WBBM, Chicago’s CBS affiliate, aired a segment during its Sunday newscasts titled “Oil Cap On, Seafood Back on Menu” that features a plea by Louisiana restaurant owners. During the segment, Anchor Mai Martinez says,

“And now that the oil has stopped leaking into the Gulf, one thing is getting back to normal: people in Louisiana are eating more and more seafood.”

The segment features an interview with Brian Landry of Gallatoire’s Restaurant who assures us that not only is Louisiana seafood safe, it’s the safest: “Our seafood is tested so often that we probably have the safest seafood on the planet because we know exactly what we’re serving.”

Then Martinez returns to tell us how we can all help: “And restaurant owners say if you want to do something to help, just buy Louisiana seafood.”

But does buying Gulf seafood alleviate the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, or might it worsen it? So far nearly all of the attention from media, scientists, government officials and business interests has focused on assuring the public Gulf seafood is safe to eat, overlooking the question of whether it makes sense to eat it.

Even environmental groups take pains to seem more concerned about fishermen than fish, although ultimately, there will be no fishermen without fish.

The federal government has closed 35 percent of federal waters in the Gulf to fishing. Can it be good for the Gulf ecosystem to kill and eat the healthy wildlife that has been lucky or wily enough to escape that zone? It may be good for restaurant owners, fishermen and the rest of the Gulf Coast’s $650 million seafood industry in the short term, but what about the long term?

The National Wildlife Federation tracks the numbers of marine mammals, birds, and sea turtles killed by the spill, but it hasn’t even tried to assess the death toll among fish and shrimp.

“Yellowfin tuna, blue tuna, blue crabs, sharks, oysters, shrimp and other species lose their ability to fight disease and experience a build-up of contaminants in their bodies over time,” the NWF reports. “Oil exposure is lethal to fish eggs and larvae that are not yet mobile and cannot escape the oil slick.”

Not only have untold numbers of animals been killed by the spill in open water, but oil and dispersant have soaked into the Louisiana marshlands that serve as nursery habitat for many species. Scientists are only beginning to assess the long-term damage from that aspect of the spill.

They know damage to the marshes will slow the recovery of species harmed by the spill, but they’re not telling us whether fishing healthy adult survivors will slow it further. Instead, the focus remains on short-term concerns about food safety.

A Mississippi scientist recently found tiny droplets of oil wedged between the outer and inner shells of blue-crab larvae collected from Gulf shores, according to Time Out Chicago.

“Fish have the ability to metabolize hydrocarbons… but shrimps, crabs and oysters do not have the metabolic capability… so there is the possibility for it to enter what we would call the human food chain,” said Harriet Perry, director of the Center for Fisheries Research and Development in Mississippi. “It is going to be a long time before we really understand the impacts, and the enormity of, what’s happening.”

Fishermen and restaurant owners can file claims against BP’s $20 billion escrow fund to cover their losses, but fish, shrimp, birds, sea turtles and marine mammals have no one to pad their collapse.

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