If the best proof we can give isn't enough, what then? Dispute over gulf seafood safety veering into the irrational

It is a fact that petroleum leaks out of the seafloor and into the ocean on a constant, naturally-occurring basis. It has for centuries – as best as we can tell, it’s actually been millennia. Oil is present in seawater, in other words, and always has been. When massive quantities of the stuff gets released at once, however, it represents an unsafe condition. We don’t want to be immersed in the stuff nor do we want to be ingesting it, either directly with the water or indirectly by consuming seafood that’s been over contaminated. But if oil is always in the seawater, then the seafood we eat is always in contact with it. It is scientifically impossible to get seafood from the open ocean that hasn’t been in contact with petroleum at some level or another.

Ah, but what level is considered unsafe versus safe? That’s what we’ve done research to figure out and what we developed tests to determine. Given the fact that it’s an absolute certainty that there’s some level of these substances present in any seafood we catch, up to what level can we feel secure in seeing and still consider it safe to eat? Since 1970 we’ve had an agency of the federal government around to look at these matters: the EPA. Along with the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the EPA has set levels that cannot be exceeded and still have a given food store permitted into the food supply. Operating under those guidelines, officials tasked with the responsibility to monitor and report on the safety of seafood coming out of the gulf after the BP oil spill are testing the gulf catch and either opening or closing areas of the gulf for fishing. They are confident their testing methods and abilities are sufficient to make that determination.

Some of the fisherman are reportedly not in agreement:

“We are not here to listen to your protocols,” [fisherman Danny] Ross said. “We have questions and there has been a breakdown in the pipeline since this whole thing started.

“Everybody that works these waters is seeing strange things out there and you cannot tell me that with that much oil and dispersant something did not get contaminated.”

So, if the testing we’re doing and the fact that they’re coming up with a “safe” determination “can’t tell him” that a given area isn’t showing contamination, what is he looking for? He says he doesn’t want to “listen to your protocols” but it’s those protocols that are describing the testing being done. If no amount of testing will do the trick, then how does he suggest we proceed? Ban seafood from the gulf permanently?

I also note that there were no examples given of the “strange things” “everybody” is seeing out there that’s convincing them the area’s contaminated. And I think it’s not unreasonable for people to ask for him and his “everybody” to be able to provide those examples in hard evidence. Of course, if we’re going to hold him to the same standard that he’s using, I’m unsure how he plans on getting the hard evidence. No testing is good enough, remember?

Perhaps there were other questions raised at the meeting that just didn’t get reported but I certainly hope there’s more to it than asking “who’s responsible if someone gets sick.” That’s not a question about how to determine safety, that’s a question about who’s going to pay the jury-awarded penalty to the people who get sick. That’s a legal question, not a scientific one, and if the fisherman want that one answered they should address it to the right people in the right venue. These guys are scientists and lab geeks; they talk tests and data.

To simply dismiss the possibility that seafood from a given area might be safe in the face of the best scientific evidence we can muster isn’t rational and the people who have concerns – rightly, I might add – need to understand that. If they have an issue with the process of determining safety they need to lay their cards on the table and explain themselves. They also need to be ready to help us figure out what would be required to allay their fears.