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The secret noses between you and oiled fish

NOAA’s trained sensory assessors monitor oil-exposed Gulf Coast seafood for safety.

Decisions about when and whether to reopen at least 81,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico closed to commercial fishing after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will depend on results of the fish sampling program run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Here, John Stein, right, deputy director of the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, and Lisa Desfosse, director of the Mississippi laboratory, outline the program than relies on a panel of secret seafood testers to declare that fish is safe. They briefed reporters Thursday in Pascagoula, Miss.

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Stephen Bell logs in samples of seafood at the dock near NOAA's Mississippi lab. More than 40 seafood testers have been trained from the five Gulf Coast states to help evaluate what are expected to be tens of thousands of samples as fisheries begin to reopen once the gushing well is stopped.

David Rae Morris / David Rae Morris

Cheryl Lassitter, left, Lisa Natanson, center, and Stephen Bell unload seafood samples. NOAA inspectors, including a panel of expert sensory assessors, will sample 10 kinds of seafood, including finfish and shellfish, trying to detect any taint from the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

David Rae Morris / David Rae Morris

Fish biologist Maryjean Willis selects a lemonfish for testing. The sensory assessors analyze samples of the fish in both raw and cooked states, and then also taste a bit to determine if petroleum odors or flavors are present. The samples must pass muster with five of seven panelists or the site fails. If they are OK'd by the panel, they're sent on to the NOAA's Seattle lab for confirmatory chemical analysis.

David Rae Morris / David Rae Morris

Maryjean Willis, left, and Frank Sommers, both fisheries research biologists, struggle to acquire precise samples from the lemonfish. The seafood assessors must follow a strict protocol for analysis, including using a properly outfitted room and following rules such as washing only with unscented soap and avoiding spicy foods before they begin testing.

David Rae Morris / David Rae Morris

A minimum of six 1-pound samples of each type of seafood are collected for analysis. Testers rank any discernable odor on a scale of 0 to 4, with 4 being the highest. An oil-tainted fish might smell like the cleaner Pine Sol, for instance, or it could hold the aroma of Band-Aids.

David Rae Morris / David Rae Morris

At a so-called "sniffing station" at the NOAA lab, testers use skills honed by natural ability, training and practice. By the end of the summer, NOAA officials hope to have two dozen expert assessors specializing in petroleum taint on board and available for testing.

David Rae Morris / David Rae Morris

A sample of red snapper awaits sensory analysis at the NOAA labs. Human inspectors are the front-line defense because seafood that smells or tastes like oil is not fit for human consumption and can't be sold, even if chemical contamination is low.

David Rae Morris / David Rae Morris

Steven Wilson, chief quality officer for NOAA's seafood inspection program, shows how it's done. Wilson is among between 60 and 70 expert assessors in the U.S. trained to inspect seafood. Only a fraction of those are specially trained to detect petroleum.

David Rae Morris / David Rae Morris