Oil spill effects: Is it safe to fish in bay? Is seafood safe to eat?

Area shaded in red is off limits to fishing

TEXAS CITY, Texas – Since 168,000 gallons of oil spilled into Galveston Bay Saturday, many have been worried about the seafood industry: Is safe to fish in the bay? Is it dangerous to eat what is caught?

Authorities responding to the spill said Wednesday that people can still boat and fish in the bay, but they need to stay out of the water near the Texas City "Y," which is near the opening of the bay where the spill happened. Responders also warn fishermen to stay away from floating oil and sheen that may have drifted out of their clean-up zones.

As for eating the seafood, the Texas Department of Health has not issued a health advisory, but they say fishermen need to exercise common sense.

"You need to make sure you do not eat fish that has visible oil on it," said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the state health department.

Her recommendation is if your catch, including shellfish, has any oil on it or smells like oil, you need to throw it back.

However, one scientist does not agree that our senses are the only way to detect contamination. Scott Smith, the Chief Scientist at WaterDefense.org, warns that some toxic chemicals in the oil that was spilled cannot be detected by sight or smell.

"Colorless, odorless chemicals are natural in oil, like benzene," explained Smith.

He said there are over 30 different metals, such as mercury, found in the bunker fuel oil that could be dangerous to our health and to marine life. He adds one gallon of oil can contaminate 1,000,000 gallons of water.

"Now this heavy bunker oil is spreading across the water column very rapidly. That is an immediate danger to all life forms," said Smith.
Oil Spill Is Not Only Affecting The Water's Surface

The water column is where life happens. It is below the surface of the water and above the bottom of the bay.

Smith explained that parts of the oil are mixing vertically down through the water where our fish, crab and shrimp all live.

"You've got very heavy molecules that are heavier than water that are sinking," said Smith.

The health department strongly recommends that you not eat any seafood that has oil on it. But if you do, officials say it would take a lot of fish to cause harm.

"To consume a harmful amount, you really need to consume a lot of seafood. And honestly, you wouldn't get past the first bite due to the taste of the fish," said Williams. "It would be fairly obvious that the fish was contaminated."

Smith disagrees.

"When you are dealing with toxic chemicals and metals in the parts per billion, there are no safe levels in water," he said.

He adds he would not recommend eating any seafood from the bay "until a full test is done."

Smith suggests waiting at least six months after the clean-up to eat seafood from the bay.

In a couple of days, Smith's water quality and contamination tests will be complete, but he can tell already metal levels will be high.

"With the heavy bunker fuel in the water, arsenic, mercury, lead are going to exceed threshold that are dangerous for life."

Keeping Yourself Safe From The Contaminated Water

Galveston County officials are warning people of possible health risks due to the oil spill.

"GCHD wants to assure all residents are aware of the situation and take steps to avoid exposure," said Dr. Mark Guidry of the Galveston County Health Authority. "In this way, we can assure the health and safety of our community."

The health district recommends that people stay away from areas contaminated with the oil, and if you see or just smell it, to leave immediately.

Health experts warn to not fish, swim or engage in water sports in the waters affected by the spill.

According public health statement from the Galveston County Health District, inhaling oil vapors or the particles in a wave's spray can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, and eye and throat irritation.

Young kids and those with respiratory conditions should avoid areas near the contaminated water.

In severe cases, depression of the central nervous system can occur and gastrointestinal irritation with vomiting and diarrhea.

A lethal dose of the oil is reached at 9g/kg.