THE DETAILS: What exactly is in those chemical dispersants isn't known. But according to two data sheets published online by Transocean Ltd., the company that owns the Deepwater Horizon rig that was being leased by BP, the primary ingredients are 2-butoxyethanol and propylene glycol. Both chemicals can be toxic in high doses, but it remains unclear whether animals are being exposed to toxic levels.
The good news, says Chris Reddy, PhD, an oil-spill scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is that neither chemical accumulates in fish and seafood. "Rarely are chemical dispersants more toxic than the oil itself," he says. "The people who respond to these oil spills and make the most informed decisions are the people in the command centers. They have one goal—to reduce damages. So any decision to use dispersants means that they that know the positives of using them far outweigh the risks."
But the chemical dispersants still have a negative impact on ecosystems, says Larry McKinney, PhD, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Corpus Christi, Texas. "When they do use these chemicals, the oil doesn't disappear," he says. Small animals and larvae that might have escaped exposure to the larger slick are now being exposed to small oil droplets that could be fatal. Furthermore, "while the concentrations [of dispersant] they're using are probably low enough not to be lethal, there are clearly sublethal affects on fish reproduction."
WHAT IT MEANS: It really is too soon to know how this oil spill will affect the Gulf Coast ecosystem and the area's seafood industry. McKinney says that oil can be absorbed by fish and work its way up the food chain and back to our dinner plates, in much the same way mercury works its way up the food chain.
So far, representatives from the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board are trying to reassure people that Gulf Coast seafood currently being sold is safe and has been unaffected by the oil spill. Areas that have been polluted have been closed by Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and local health departments. But that may not be the case forever.
If you enjoy seafood from the Gulf, the shrimp, crawfish, stone crabs, oysters, and other fish you like may soon be in short supply. Here are a few alternatives:
• Red snapper: Gulf Coast red snapper has been threatened for quite some time by overfishing, so now's a good time to develop a taste for red snapper from the Hawaiian Islands, where fisheries are better managed. Or, replace your red snapper recipes with pollack, sablefish, or farmed striped bass.
• Gulf shrimp: Gulf shrimp have a good reputation as being enormous, juicy, and some of the best-tasting shrimp around. But pink shrimp from Oregon actually have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than Gulf shrimp do. They're sold mostly on the West Coast, but you can buy them online through Vital Choice Seafood.
• Stone crabs: The Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Coast regions surrounding Florida yield nearly 98 percent of the country's stone crab populations, and according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, it's one of the country's most responsibly managed fisheries. However, if you get a craving for crab legs, you can try different types of crab from Hawaii, Alaska, and Pacific U.S. waters. Varieties include Dungeness, blue, King, Kona, and snow crabs.
• Oysters: Oysters are filter-feeders, meaning that they take out any pollutants or debris in the water that passes through them. In some respects, they can be very useful in cleaning up an oil spill, says McKinney. However, you won't want to eat oysters that were used to clean up BP's mess. So make sure that any oysters you eat come from farms in the Atlantic or Pacific, rather than the Gulf of Mexico.