What Does the Oil Spill Mean for Seafood?

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As the fish vendor at the farmer's market wrapped up my purchase last week, I started to ask: "So, are you worried...?" but didn't even get a chance to add "...about the oil spill?" before she emphatically replied: "YES."

Making a living from fishing is hard enough already, she explained grimly, so she can't imagine how commercial fisherman and their families along the Gulf Coast will survive this blow to their main source of income. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration keeps widening the area closed to fishing off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, now accounting for some 7 percent of all federal Gulf Coast waters. State waters in Mississippi and Alabama remain open so far, but Louisiana has closed many of its oyster beds and shrimping areas as a precaution.

Although some three-quarters of Louisiana's fishing areas are still open, the spill is already affecting the state's economy, adding to the woes inflicted by Hurricane Katrina. Charter fisherman say business has slowed to a "trickle," and the region's largest fishery is reeling from a 50 percent decline in its catch. The state has lifted certain eligibility restrictions on food aid programs to make it easier for "recently unemployed fishermen" to qualify.

Despite all this, we're seeing news reports with headlines like "Spill's Effect Unlikely to Make Its Way to Grocery Aisles." Well, that's good news...right?

Not exactly, from my perspective. This illuminates some statistics I never really noticed before: about 83 percent of the seafood we eat in the United States is imported from overseas, much of it from China. Combined with the recent revelation that the FDA inspects only about 2 percent of seafood imports annually, I find that unsettling, especially since many Chinese seafood imports have been found to be contaminated or fraudulently labeled. (So many, in fact, that the FDA has issued an "import alert" on specific types of seafood from China.)

I don't know what to do about all of this, other than to pay more attention to where my seafood is coming from, and to buy from reputable domestic sources whenever possible. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch guide is a helpful resource for tracking which species are being sustainably caught and managed—issues that will be discussed at the Smithsonian Associates' upcoming Savoring Sustainable Seafood weekend here in D.C.

And I think I'll go back to that fish vendor today.

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