Photo: jere7my, Flickr
Located off Southeastern Louisiana, Barataria Bay is home to some of the most biologically diverse and productive waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Beginning in late May, state authorities began to close off specific areas to recreational and commercial fishing due to the appearance of oil as reported by shrimpers. Then on July 27th , a passing dredge barge pulled by the Pere Ana C. tugboat collided with an abandoned wellhead causing a geyser of oil to burst over the waters. Capped on August 1st, the oil well was eventually controlled, but the damage to Barataria Bay was done, and blue crab, one of the Gulf's most vital seafood harvests, is feeling the effects.
"Blue crabs are one of the most important components in the Gulf's food chain," Vince Guillory, a biologist manager of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries, told Slashfood. Over the past few weeks reports from researchers testing seafood in the Barataria area have shown these abundant crustaceans' larvae to exhibit characteristic orange specks caused by oil. Biologist Harriet Perry of the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory has been studying the samples and told the Associated Press, "In my 42 years of studying crabs I've never seen this."
The news comes as a blow to an industry that regularly pulls in 40 to 50 million pounds of seafood a year in Louisiana alone. The findings are especially relevant now. Thanks to the Gulf's warm waters, crabs are at peak spawn and harvest season during July and August. Following the spawning period, crabs release their larvae into the waters; these spawn will eventually return to the Gulf's estuaries to develop and undergo several molting periods. After a full year, or when they reach a width of five inches, crabs are then ready for legal commercial harvest.
"Last year we pulled in slightly over 50 million pounds," says Guillory. It remains to be seen whether this year the season's catch will be nearly as bountiful, or even available for fishing activity. According to Guillory, blue crabs are the number one prey for drum fish, and if larvae show signs of oil contamination, it's only a matter of time before the same shows up in larger predatory species.
Though it's unclear whether crabs and other seafood will naturally digest and pass the oil or show long term signs of affliction, Louisiana's fishermen and retailers are worried. One source who delivers seafood to New Orleans area restaurants (and requested to remain anonymous) commented, "We just keep wondering if it's going to transfer to all the other seafood when the crabs shed and are eaten." After a bit of theorizing as to BP's activities, the source summed up the immediate situation, "We've been sitting around all morning talking about this because the fishermen can't go out and fish and I don't have any fish to deliver."