Tossing a life preserver to its ailing tourism industry, the state of Louisiana has reopened most of its state waters in the Gulf of Mexico to recreational fishing.
The state’s seven-member Wildlife and Fisheries Commission announced Wednesday that approximately 86 percent of recreational fishing in state waters extending 3 miles off the coast would be reopened immediately to recreational fishing, including shrimping and crabbing. Excluded are “heavily oiled areas, areas associated with boom and areas of active cleanup,” it said.
The areas remain closed to commercial fishing, though charter boats, bait fishermen and “dealers who harvest for and sell to recreational fishermen exclusively” can resume operations.
The move makes Louisiana the first state hard hit by BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill to lift strict restrictions on recreational fishing. Mississippi’s coastal waters in the Mississippi Sound remain closed to both commercial and recreational fishing, while state waters along Alabama and a 23-mile stretch of northeast Florida are open only for “catch and release” recreational fishing. (Texas, which has so far largely been spared by the oil, has placed no restrictions on commercial or recreational fishing.)
The federal government also has closed a wide swath of the Gulf to all fishing.
Joe Shepard, administrator of Louisiana’s fisheries division, said state officials acted after analysis of approximately 500 samples of fish, crabs, oysters and shrimp from near shore indicated that they posed no health threat.
State officials are nonetheless urging fishermen to use common sense and to “smell and examine catch closely to ensure that there are no obvious oil or chemical residues.”
“We’ve asked the recreational fisherman to be very cautious,” Shepard said. “Basically, if you are in an area that has oil, don’t stay there fishing.”
But he acknowledged that the economic damage the spill has wrought on the state’s $2.4 billion fishing industry also played a role in the commission’s decision.
“We had people there testifying that they’d been out of business for some time and I’m sure it had something to do with it,” he said. “That’s the commission’s role, to consider all the information before making a decision, not just the scientific information.”
The move has at least temporarily created a double-standard in terms of seafood consumption, as commercial fishermen are still prohibited from working in much of the Gulf.
Shepard said that’s because state officials are bound by an agreement with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates interstate commercial fishing, and the National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration that requires a strict protocol of testing before commercial fisheries can be reopened.
“It’s really not a double-standard from our perspective,” he said. “We want them both to be open."
The FDA has urged states to abide by the testing protocol in their waters, even though the federal government has no jurisdiction over recreational fishing there. That would mean samples from individual fisheries would be submitted to sensory tests by trained experts and chemical analysis before they could be reopened.
“FDA and NOAA have shared this protocol with the states and encouraged them to use it to affirm the safety of state harvest waters prior to reopening,” it said in a statement issued on June 29.
The partial reopening of Louisiana’s waters to fishing is a big concern for Ewell Smith, director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, though not because of health concerns.
He’s worried that consumers will be even more confused about the safety of Gulf seafood, which is why his organization argued against the recreational reopening at the commission’s hearing.
“The recreational people felt this wasn’t fair to them because the FDA doesn’t regulate them,” he said. “I can understand that, but we were hoping they would hold off so that the messaging would be clear across the country. Because I’m not sure the consumer is going to understand if there are recreational and commercial fishing areas with different guidelines.”
Smith accused the FDA and NOAA of “moving too slowly” testing seafood samples that would clear the way to reopen more commercial fisheries, but he said he was optimistic that “in a week or two, we’ll be on the same playing field (as the recreational fishermen), which is where we need to be.”
Representatives of the FDA and NOAA did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
While some fishermen might turn up their noses at fish that has been swimming anywhere near the BP spill, Jim Barnett, who worked for 33 years as a seafood sensory expert for the FDA, said he would have no qualms about consuming a fish caught in the Gulf if it passed a smell test.
“My experience has been that most fish tend to avoid areas where you’ve had anything like this happen … and I would think most people could detect odors in fish that had come under contamination,” he said. “If it’s that bad, you’re not going to want to consume it.”