Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, announced the reopening of a third of the overall closed area Thursday night after consultation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and under a re-opening protocol agreed by NOAA, the FDA, and the gulf states.
At its closest point, the 26,388 square mile area to be reopened is about 190 miles southeast of BP's Deepwater Horizon wellhead, and the area where the majority of fishing will occur is about 220 miles from the wellhead, along the west Florida shelf.
Fishing once again permitted in the Gulf of Mexico near Florida. (Photo by Roger Bowin)
Lubchenco told reporters that no oil has been seen in the area for at least 30 days, the seafood tastes fine and rigorous testing of the fish shows no trace of oil or dispersants.
"At the time the area was originally closed, there was a concern that the light sheen observed in the Northeastern portion of the area might enter the Loop Current, a loop separating towards the Florida Keys. That fear, however, never materialized," said Lubchenco.
Before the area was reopened, NOAA had closed 83,927 square miles, approximately 35 percent of Gulf of Mexico federal waters.
Since mid-June NOAA data has shown no oil in the reopened area and the United States Coast Guard observers flying over the area in the last 30 days have also not seen any oil, Luchenco said.
NOAA's trajectory models show the area is at a low risk for future exposure to oil, she said, and fish caught in the area and tested by NOAA experts have shown no signs of contamination.
The shaded area of the Gulf of Mexico is now reopened to fishing. (Map courtesy NOAA)
"Between June 23 and July 5, NOAA collected samples of fish including grouper, snapper, tuna and mahi mahi from the area where the heaviest fishing will take place. Sensory and chemical testing following the methodology and procedures in the reopening protocols show no detectable oil or dispersant odors or flavors," Lubchenco said, adding that the results of chemical analysis were "well below the level of concern."
NOAA and FDA have been working together on broad-scale seafood sampling that includes sampling seafood from inside and outside the closure area, as well as dockside and market sampling. That sampling will continue, Lubchenco said.
In addition, NOAA and university research vessels have been doing extensive testing for sub-surface oil throughout the gulf. "What we're finding is that there is sub-surface oil right near the vicinity of the well head and as one goes farther away from the well head the oil is highly dispersed. By the time you get out to the area where the fishery opening area is it is virtually undetectable."
Gulf fishermen have expressed concern that the reopening is happening too soon and that they might be blamed if someone gets sick from eating fish contaminated with oil or dispersants.
But federal officials are convinced that fish from the reopened area are safe to eat.
"We are pleased today to be able to fully support the reopening of these waters," said Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of food and drugs. "We know it is important to get people back to fishing quickly - this industry is the backbone of the Gulf region economy. At the same time, we need the American public to be confident in the seafood coming from the Gulf, and the testing that has been done as part of the agreed upon protocols has not indicated any level of concern."
At the same time, NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard continue to enforce the law in federal waters that have been closed to fishing.
"Stringent enforcement of the fishing closed areas is critically important to ensure product safety and consumer confidence in Gulf seafood during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill event," said Eric Schwaab, NOAA assistant administrator for NOAA's Fisheries Service. "We share the fishing community's concern that their catch be recognized as not coming from the closed area and that it is free of oil contamination."
Office of Law Enforcement and Coast Guard actions have led to 13 illegal catches being abandoned at sea.
NOAA's first Notice of Violation and Assessment in connection to the oil spill was issued in response to a June 22 violation. The shrimp trawler involved has been assessed a $15,000 penalty for fishing in the portion of the Gulf of Mexico closed due to the BP oil spill.
"Today's decision is good news for Gulf fishermen and American consumers," Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said Thursday. "Following the best science for this re-opening provides important assurance to the American people that the seafood they buy is safe and protects the Gulf seafood brand and the many people who depend on it for their livelihoods."
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